Author’s note: The following are annotated highlights from the morning show playlist on WTMD 89.7 out of Towson, Maryland on the morning of Wed. April 13, 2011. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the DJ Erik Deatherage, who has unknowingly nursed me through many a difficult morning.
I was recovering from my grandfather’s funeral that day. It was also the day the home owner’s association had a paving company come to re-pave our end of the street. I walked down the block to my car, with my heart feeling empty and sending resounding echoes to my brain, which rattled around unsettlingly. It was a long walk, and the neighborhood kids eyed me, unsure if I was one of them on my way to the bus stop or if they should watch their mouths. It was drizzling already, and my toes were cold, and I knew I’d be in for a long drive, but as I cranked the engine and this song came on along with the check engine light, I figured it was just going to have to be OK.
This “satirical punk rock band” was formed the year I was born. They recorded “Punk Rock Girl” in 1988. I was five years old and a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper at the time. I didn’t even hear the song until at least six years later, and I didn’t realize it was satire. Rather, I thought it was a ballad just for me. It fucking figures. Nonetheless, it remains one of my favorite songs of all time, and even though I’ve learned to laugh at the lyrics, I still also believe they are about me, my inner punk rocker, my inner mohawk.
My sister, Katie, was a PJ Harvey fan in high school, and she introduced me to PJ by teaching me the words to “Shee-la-na-gig”, which we sang while rollerblading around a state park during a family picnic. It bothered our dad, who said, “Stop singing that!” He was normally the one who most liked to hear me sing, which made me wonder if there was something to the lyric about “dirty pillows” that I wasn’t getting. I liked to steal Katie’s CDs, and most of what I knew about sex and feminism was derived from the albums Dry, Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love. I tried to woo high school boys by walking around the halls of my Catholic school singing “Easy,” which is a scary song when done right and explains a lot about my early relationships.
There’s something about the simple humanity of an acoustic instrument and the meeting of voices in a well-structured harmony that’s particularly nurturing on a rainy day when you’ve been grieving. Being in your car and crying a little bit and thinking of how you want to protect your loved ones while surrounded by all these strangers on their strange missions to work and pay bills and support still more strangers in their grief and their small failings. It makes the world seem right in a sweet, tenderhearted, rainy way.
I had a little creative spurt a while back when struggling to answer the unanswerable question of “How are you?” Admittedly, I was being a little melodramatic, but I was pretty pleased with the resulting essay/letter. I was also experimenting with video work a little bit and decided to film my commute by placing a digital camera on my dash board. Then I mashed up the clips of my drive with the sound track of the Beatles countdown and a voiceover of myself reading that essay. Then I saved the whole thing and never shared it with anyone.
At the funeral, the family entered and sat in the front few rows while the congregation stood, and I could feel their curious eyes on us. Many of them knew my grandfather much better than I did, and they must have wondered what kind of people we were. I was OK with them looking as I believe we should be honest in our grief, and I am tired of pretending not to cry and struggling to keep it together. I wasn’t crying for my grandfather so much as for the whole tragedy of family, with all its secrets and heartaches and poorly bandaged wounds. When everyone sat down and a thin man with a loving smile stood up and said, “Sing with me,” I tried to join him in “Amazing Grace,” which is among the most beautiful songs ever sung, but my voice failed me, and I could only sit there and hold my sister’s hand. I wiped my face with the loose end of my shawl, and we just held on like that for a long time.
My mom has a large old jewelry box full of a odds and ends from her life. A bracelet engraved with “Butch,” the name of someone she dated once upon a time. Some baby teeth, a lock of hair. Jewelry from God knows where. It also holds notes of sympathy from when her mother died, two of them telegraphs from people I never heard of. She had a leather folder with a black and white photo of her mother, a young woman, who died of the vague diagnosis, “heart troubles.” I always planned on getting the rest of the story, but there were so many questions I didn’t ask. When they told me grandpa had another 6-12 months to live, I thought I had one more chance, so I gathered every spare ounce of journalism in my blood and prepared to get my answers, but it was too late when I arrived.
As I pull in to the office parking lot and cut off a car from the pest control office at the end of our building, I hear and immediately recognize the baseline from a song that never gets played on any radio station ever except this one. I adore Suzanne Vega and any DJ who will play her. I could keep on driving as long as the songs keep playing. Maybe I would figure something out about all this blood, or maybe I’d just waste a tank of gas. But for now, there’s something about this song today that pretty well sums me up. “I’d like to help you doctor, yes I really really would, but the din in my head, it’s too much and it’s no good.”