There was an episode of the great Dick Van Dyke Show when Van Dyke’s character Rob Petrie is invited to speak to his son’s class on career day. Rob Petrie is a comedy writer, so he talks to the kids about why things are funny. He tells the kids that those things that are surprising or unexpected are often the things that make us laugh, as he trips over a step.
“There!” he said, making the point through kids’ loud laughter. Had they known he would trip, it would not have been funny. But they didn’t know. It was a surprise, and so they laughed.
I think the same rule applies to things that are scary. When we walk through a haunted house or are watching a horror movie, it is the fear of the unknown that drives our emotions. Having someone jump out from behind a corner as we are walking through the dark corridor of a haunted house is frightening, as is a corpse rising from a grave, or a knife unexpectedly wielded.
Whether we laugh or cry, it is those specific, unexpected events that make us respond. But events don’t need to be specific or finite in nature in order to elicit a real sense of fear. The kind of fear where the whole world goes black. The kind of fear that makes it challenging to breathe. The kind of fear that makes it hard to imagine anything else is happening anywhere.
I was 25 years old when a friend was helping me to move into the first home I would share with Lynn, who I would soon be marrying. It was a hot day, and I was driving a big U-Haul truck with inadequate air conditioning. We were stuck in traffic when I heard the gentle acoustic melody that begins “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman.
The song had been released only a few years before, and was a monster hit. The record store I was working at when it was released had the cassette on sale for $5.99, and we could not keep it in stock. The music was everywhere, and while I always liked the album, for whatever reason, I never really loved it. I never really connected to it.
On this day though. On this hot day. On this day with blisters on my hands, sweat pouring down my back and imagining a life I could not imagine, this song shot me in the heart. Like tripping over a step, like someone jumping out from behind a corner. I was surprised. I was terrified.
“You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something
But me myself I got nothing to prove”
“Fast Car” tells the stark story of a young woman trying to escape a cycle of poverty. We don’t know who “you” is, as in “You got a fast car…” but we assume it is a lover, a boyfriend. The car is how they escape. There is nothing to stay for. They don’t know what lies ahead, but whatever it is, it has to better than where they are.
“You got a fast car
And I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
We won’t have to drive too far
Just across the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living”
Tracy Chapman’s voice is deep, and it is lonely. The production is sparse and dark. The guitar melody offers a line of brightness and hope, but everything else is plodding and dormant. There is hope, but it is a hope that is guarded. There is a little bit of optimism, but that optimism is shrouded by robust skepticism.
“You see my old man’s got a problem
He lives with the bottle that’s the way it is
He says his body’s too old for working
I say his body’s too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody’s got to take care of him
So I quit school and that’s what I did”
Does anything happen like we hope it will happen? Can we escape the prison of our history, and our story? Can our future really be that much different than our past?
As I drove the truck and listened to “Fast Car,” I found myself wondering about my life to come. I realized I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what our lives would be like, and if our marriage would be what we envisioned. I just heard that guitar melody. I just heard that lonely voice.
“You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way”
That moment of decision, that moment of action. Deciding to take a risk for change, or to play it safe and keep things they way they are. We don’t know how things will turn out, and it is OK to be afraid of all those things that may happen to us, maybe because of us. Maybe we can feel better. Maybe we can be better tomorrow than we are today.
“See I remember we were driving, driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone”
Lynn and I got married on July 7, 1991 and we have been very happy. In just a couple of years, we will be celebrating our 30th anniversary. We have enjoyed raising our two beautiful daughters, we have each grown in our careers, and there has been a lot of adventure and laughter along the way.
I was 25 years old, and I was afraid because I did not know what my life would bring. To this day “Fast Car” always brings back that fear of the unknown, and Tracy Chapman’s voice always reminds me of that moment in time when you just don’t know what comes next.
Written by Tracy Chapman
Performed by Tracy Chapman
Released April 6, 1988
I’ve been listening to Chapman for decades. Saw her perform at Northwestern, she stood before us suffering the flu. She looked horrible and we all wanted her to go home. But she was a trooper and honestly never sounded better. This is a haunting song and you’ve written about it so well.
Thank you for those nice words. Sounds like you were at a remarkable show!