This piece by the novelist Susan Choi (American Woman, The Foreign Student, Person of Interest) first appeared on moistworks, the audioblog, in 2007. It’s certainly about music, but it’s also about driving. With Susan's permission we reprint it here.
1982: Cactus Records and Tapes
I don't know a thing about music and I never will. Still, like most kids, music and its precincts define freedom for me like nothing else. In 1982 my mother and I have been in Houston, Texas for three years. Our lives have come apart as thoroughly as they ever have yet. My mother is seriously ill and disabled. My father is, ambiguously, elsewhere; in time this ambiguity will take on the legal status of divorce but it will never, even to the early years of the twenty-first century, be resolved. No matter; that knowledge wouldn't have made any difference. We rely on the kindness of young foreign students in equally straightened circumstances, if hale health. One of them, an aspiring nurse from Indonesia, lives with us in a cockroach-infested apartment in a complex my fellow Girl Scouts are not allowed to visit. She pays us some minimal rent on which we rely, although I tell the Girl Scouts she's my sister. Is there any chance they believe me? Another, a dazzlingly handsome young Iranian aspiring chiropractor, takes us grocery shopping alternate weeks in his hazardous Volkswagen Bug. We pay him some part of our take from the nurse. I sit folded in the slot behind the front seats; my mother sits folded beside the dazzling young man, a woman in her mid-forties who looks sixty, parchment paper and bones.
I get a bicycle, make a friend.
I begin to spend hours, long afternoons, whole Saturdays at Cactus Records and Tapes. It's a long, hazardous bike ride from our apartment along streets without sidewalks, stitched with crabgrass swelling from the cracks. I don't know if Houston was as hot then as it is now, but it was astoundingly hot, ninety six degrees, ninety six percent humidity, the sun an angry white bulb in the sky. Suzan Seggerman and I, pedaling our three-speeds, our feathered hair flying behind us. We're so young, we're so homely and lonely, any slight attention from any hideous male and we strain toward it, gawky sunflowers aching for sun. Suzan burns easily and has pimples on her shoulders. I am waistless, I have braces, I'm still wearing terrycloth tops from the Sears catalog. In Cactus Records and Tapes we trail aimlessly through the long aisles, the air-conditioning turning our sweat into fine powdered salt. We stay for hours. We absorb the music passively, undiscerningly, hungrily. We never, ever buy anything. Once I am picked up by a much older man, taken to an apartment to participate in witchcraft rituals, chanted at while lavender burns in a large metal cup. A young child wails, ignored, from a bedroom; a telephone incessantly rings, ignored, in the kitchen. When she sees me again my mother - shrinking, receding, clutching her twin metal canes - asks me where I go, and when I tell her, Just the record store, she asks what I do. What am I doing? Only later do I grasp what she already knows: I'm going. I'm learning how to be free.
1985: Sound Warehouse
I fall in love with Bill Sherborne at first sight and stalk him to the cash register at Sound Warehouse, where I ask him to give me a job application. Three long years, and things have changed. No longer waistless. No more braces. No more clothes from the Sears Catalog. I get the job and before my first day I get Bill Sherborne, too, but he isn't, as it turns out, the thing I take away from Sound Warehouse into the rest of my life. That's a Sony UCX-S60, which isn't some virile speed vehicle but a flimsy sixty-minute cassette. I'm listening to it right now, at ten p.m. on a Monday, while my son sleeps and entire sad, strange, plain embarrassing times of my life I've apparently failed to forget newly blossom before me, as if all this while they've been pressed into capsules, awaiting some magical touch.
The other Sound Warehouse employee who makes me his business is Chris Kemmerer: wry, sly, often standing apart in wire-rims and a vintage trench coat, smugly watching the world go by. To me he always seemed petite, but he and I were probably about the same size. Our chaste partnership somehow immediate. Bill Sherborne makes all of the turbulent weather; unperceived in the midst of those hurricane winds Chris ensconces himself as my most indispensable comrade. Bill Sherborne and I share a damp, inarticulate passion; Chris and I can't stop yakking our heads off. With Bill Sherborne I think I've ascended, become iconic and noble, a Woman in Love; with Chris, I now realize, I've stumbled upon the adult that I'm actually going to be. A gawky and talkative smarty, happiest when companioned by same.
Like all of the men in my life, Chris gives me music, but he's unique among them in discerning, many years before I do, the sort of listener I am. I still don't know a thing about music. Chris can see that I won't ever learn. And yet for me music remains the condition for freedom, the way water and air are conditions for life. Haven't I come to Sound Warehouse seeking passion and friendship, as if obeying some primal instinct?
Inventorying tapes, squaring albums, re-alphabetizing, I become exalted by the most random things: Lydon's howl; Eno's trance; The Cocteau Twins' eerie yodel. I bask in these sounds the same way that I bask in good weather: ecstatically, gratefully, entirely resigned to the knowledge that nothing I do can protract or repeat my enjoyment. I very rarely learn band names or song names; I almost never acquire the songs I most love. I still don't know why I'm like this: a girl secretly starring in her own movie, who wants the soundtrack to happen to her, without lifting a finger.
Somehow, Chris Kemmerer understands this. While Bill Sherborne records whole albums for me, or collections of the best songs by a given artist (Todd Rundgren) or a given songwriter (George Harrison) - trying to teach me, in this realm as in so many others - Chris, within the first year he's known me, gives me mixed tape that I like for my soundtrack about as well as anything I've heard since. He doesn't try to inform me about the musicians. I'm not expected to seek out other records they've made. The tape is self-sufficient: it's intended for basking. Do I continue to like it just because I liked it so much then, when I was only seventeen? Is it like comfort food, permanently beloved because early consumed? It's possible; but there's a lot of other stuff I liked at seventeen that I can't endure now.
By 1985, one other big thing has changed: I'm a licensed driver. I take Chris' tape and jam it in my cassette deck, and I drive and drive and drive the endless freeways of Houston, as fast as I can. Great slabs of concrete that ascend and descend and describe graceful arcs in the air. Dividing and merging, separating and joining, sometimes even falling asleep: at seventeen I drive drunk with no fear, and I don't wear a seatbelt. The Tape urges speed: Chris and I used to joke that Houston has worse gravity than the rest of the planet. It's a city of reduced expectations, of torpor. We all dream of leaving and we never get out. What the hell is the escape velocity for this dump, anyway? It's late at night, I'm alone on the road; I step hard on the gas pedal, lift off the ground.
1988: Tower Records
But I've fudged for the sake of the story. The truth is, by the time that Chris gives me The Tape, we both know that I'm leaving.
I'd gotten into Yale, which was, in the context of my life at that time, akin to having been chosen for a mission to the moon. No one I knew had gone there, or anywhere near there, or anywhere like there. I myself was only certain it was going to change my life, not as in, make some alteration in my life, but as in, drop an entirely new life into the slot where the old life had been, so that the old life, down to its last grain, no longer existed.
But at Yale I kept getting homesick. Every winter, spring, and summer break, I rushed home. Sometimes, when I went home, I worked at Star Pizza, which was across the street from Sound Warehouse and down the block from Kinko's Copies, where Chris Kemmerer was now working. Sometimes when I went home I worked at the River Oaks Theatre, which was where Bill Sherborne was now working. I kept making damp angst with Bill Sherborne and I kept yakking all night over coffee with Chris Kemmerer, while, at school, I jittered uneasily from one department to another until, in the late summer of 1988, I told my parents if I didn't take a leave of absence from Yale, I might leave for good.
But I knew that I couldn't go home. Something had jammed the works and I kept toggling, back and forth, back and forth, never moving upward, and going home would just keep up the toggling. So I called Chris Kemmerer and somehow, in a very brief conversation, it was decided that Chris would quit his job at Kinko's Copies and drive to New Haven in his miniscule red Mazda to fetch me, and from there we'd drive to San Francisco and see what transpired.
I packed The Tape.
In San Francisco my Sound Warehouse experience got me a job right away at Tower Records, and our adventure, which could so easily have been a debacle, turned out a success. We scoured San Francisco. We felt an earthquake. We shared a six by ten room subdivided with milk crates. That December we drove East again, and whatever in me had needed settling had finally settled, and I returned to school and changed almost everything I had been doing, and I did well and throve.
But before all that, before the rest of my life, when we were first driving to San Francisco, Chris had pulled into the left-hand emergency lane and made me take the wheel.
When we got out of the car I was jelly-legged, hardly able to stand. We hung over the rail and the great blank expanse of the dam glowed at us like the face of a glacier. We'd driven all that way without a map, ignorant and defenceless. Now the sublime had ambushed us and pummeled our hearts.
Then we got back in the Mazda, restarted The Tape, and drove on to Las Vegas.
. . . . . . . . . .