My race began…
with a cherry red Jeep.
It wasn’t mine—I was only eight at the time—but I remember my father pulling it up the driveway. He had his hand out the open window, waving to my two younger brothers and me as we stood on the porch steps in our Power Ranger pajamas, eyes locked on the shiny red skin of our family’s brand new car. He honked the horn and we jumped.
Living fifteen miles from Detroit, getting a new car isn’t like any other day in any other part of the country. It’s a holiday. Once upon a time cars were the lifeblood of families surrounding the Motor City. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that of my many relatives, every single one of us has peered underneath the hood of a broken car with a decent understanding of how to fix it. We are the family that sees an abandoned car in the tall weeds, gets a tow, and puts it back together again. And in Detroit, changing your first flat tire is as important a rite of passage as your first kiss. So when a new car pulls up to your house, the horn honking away, you know the day is going to be special.
Before the cherry red Jeep, the cars my father brought home were either black or white. One was navy blue—as far as my father dared to venture down the color spectrum. Red was too flashy, too showy, and more about the spectacle of the car rather than the car itself. But he couldn’t help himself when he saw the Jeep, its red paint and all, and he bought it. I thought we were rich. In my young mind red cars were for famous people and their Porsches, not for a family living off a factory worker’s salary. And when we all climbed in for the ceremonial ‘first ride,’ our hands touched leather seats. Leather. Seats. That did it, we were definitely rich.
My father laughed when I said as much, knowing that what made this car so spectacular wasn’t the red coat of paint, or the black leather seats—it was the CD player. CD players had existed for a while before this, but its installation inside of cars had only recently begun. If the red paint and the leather seats had me seeing stars, the CD player made me feel that I had touched them. But my family didn’t own a CD player, or a Walkman, or a stereo. We had no CDs to christen the car with, and when I pointed this rather important fact out to my father, he handed me the most valuable object I would ever come to own: Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album.
At eight years old I didn’t know that Bruce Springsteen was a rock star. That he had been on the cover of Time and Newsweek. That people called him the next Bob Dylan, which wouldn’t have mattered much to me back then since I hadn’t yet learned the weight of Bob Dylan’s impact on music. I didn’t know Bruce Springsteen came from New Jersey, that he was a guitarist before he was a front man, that he wrote all of his own songs and that seeing Elvis Presley perform changed his life. I didn’t know who Bruce Springsteen was but my dad seemed to like him, and that was good enough for me. It was the first CD my dad had ever bought, the first CD I had ever touched as I inserted it into the CD player behind the back seat. My father started the engine. My mother smiled in the passenger seat and my brothers squirmed beside me as we began driving. The windows were down and the volume was up as magic filled our car.
Anyone who knows the Born to Run album by heart like I do knows that “Born to Run” isn’t the first song on the album: “Thunder Road” is. And the moment I heard Bruce Springsteen play the harmonica, the piano in the near distance filtering from the car’s speakers, I knew my world had suddenly changed—and The Boss himself hadn’t even started singing yet.
I had never heard anything like this before. Never knew that my father and mother had the words to “Thunder Road” memorized. Never knew that they liked to act out the lyrics, singing loudly as we rolled past overgrown lawns and barking dogs. I remember staring at my parents and thinking something almost spiritual was happening. That I was witnessing how music could bring back memories of youth and hopefulness. How it could stir up feelings inside of us kept dormant for too long. Or, in my case, spark feelings I never knew I had. Bruce’s music was like a sunrise—soft and orange in the early morning that grew brighter and brighter as it climbed higher in the sky.
As “Thunder Road” played on, the harmonica and the piano gave way to a voice that sounded like broken glass covered in sand. Slow and steady, more instruments began shining over Bruce’s words. With every blast of the saxophone, every light touch of the piano keys, every strum of the guitar, I could hear doors opening in my mind—creativity and ideas bursting out of these doors in colors I couldn’t name. I heard Bruce sing about sadness, about escape, about love, about loss. About characters with only a car, an open road, and a dream, and no map on how to get them there. And if I’m being honest with myself, as I look back on this memory with the blessing (or curse) of perspective, I heard him sing about my parents.
Later that year, after hearing “Thunder Road” for the very first time, I would write my first poem, take my first piano lesson and dabble in painting. Six years later I would write my first story and try to capture the creative world that Bruce Springsteen opened up for me. I would dare to dream about Paris, and London, and New York City.
At the age of twenty-three, I packed my bags, my books, my hopes, my dreams and took a risk on moving to New York without any sort of roadmap on what to do when I finally got there—just like “Thunder Road” had taught me to do. With the New York City skyline in the distance, I would see Bruce perform live for the first time and cry through four hours of that rough, sandpaper voice I fell in love with at eight years old. Now, living in the Big Apple as a book editor and getting closer to my own 30th birthday, I’ve often wondered what different avenues my life would have taken had certain events happened at different times. If my father chose an older car. If I heard “Thunder Road” a few years later. Or if we listened to a different CD as we drove around our neighborhood. But all I can know for certain is on that day in Detroit, with smiles on my parents’ faces, my brothers humming words they didn’t know, and the harmonica piercing the air, my life took a drastic turn onto a magical road that I’m still lucky enough to be traveling down.
And I have that cherry red Jeep to thank for it all.
Race To 30 would like to wish Nicole a Happy 30th Birthday!!!
We hope it's as magical as The Boss himself!