(Pictured: Eric Clapton, circa 1970.)
The other night, I was driving around in the Minneapolis suburbs after teaching my class, looking for a place to get a quick sandwich.
The job is not strenuous—I do not unload freight cars—but it can be wearying. I have to be “on” for my students for up to six hours at a time, friendly and encouraging and responsive, and I spend most of the time on my feet. It can be frustrating: some groups this trip contained students from several different schools, and they were weirdly paralyzed by the presence of kids they didn’t know personally. (Getting them to participate took every trick I know, and for the first time I can recall, the tricks didn’t really work.) And it can be isolating: apart from interacting with my students, the only people I talked most days were convenience-store and hotel clerks, waitstaff, and the occasional bartender.
Despite all this, I do not necessarily pine for home on these trips. The majority of my other work is always done on the laptop, so I continue to do it wherever I am; being away is merely a change of scene, like one of my trips to the bagel shop extended to a week. If I pine for anything on these trips, it’s the same things I pine for at home: lost innocence, second chances, that kind of thing.
I was in a hurry when I filled up the CD bag for the car ride, so I grabbed a handful of discs from the Time-Life Sounds of the Seventies series, which I bought back in the 90s. Back then, I was happy to add so many memorable songs to my library. Now that my library is much, much larger (and contained almost entirely on an external hard-drive that attaches to the laptop), it seems less important to have “All Right Now” on CD. I don’t listen to those CDs much anymore. When I do, they don’t contain any surprises—they’re made up of one old warhorse after another.
So I am trying to find a decent sandwich the other night and growing annoyed with my limited options. I am not really listening to the music, it’s just there, as I scan the horizon for something that’s not going to be too heavy for 9:30 at night (McDonalds, Burger King, etc.) or something that’s not Subway (which I eat only when there’s absolutely no alternative). So add to the weariness and frustration of my class the growing desire to find some goddamn thing to eat so I can go back to the hotel and take off my shoes.
Then “After Midnight” comes on,” followed immediately by “Green-Eyed Lady” and “Fire and Rain,” all of which were on the radio that first fall I discovered it, the fall of 1970. And there it is: a glimpse of my lost innocence. For about nine minutes, I am reminded how it was to be 10 years old, unformed clay, about to learn what I am supposed to be. I will learn it from Eric Clapton, Sugarloaf, James Taylor and all the rest of the people on the radio, especially Larry Lujack and the other WLS DJs. And since I am 10 years old, nearly all of what I have yet to do remains undone, so a river of second chances flows away in my distance.
Those songs, and the other songs from the fall of 1970 and in the years beyond, the ones that I hear in my head even without a radio . . . it occurs to me that they have done everything for me across all the years, everything but save my life, and I suppose they’ve probably done that too.
They told me who I would be, and now they tell me who I am.
If this were fiction, I would crest a hill and find a little diner with a perfect menu and a waitress who looks a little like my mother. But I end up buying a nondescript convenience-store sandwich and a bag of chips, because sometimes it gets late and you really need to get home.
Well, not home, exactly, but back to the hotel. Those old songs had already taken me home, to the place in my head and my heart that’s home, in a way no other place is ever going to be.