The sun is finally starting to retreat into late afternoon, offering a little relief from the humid New Jersey summer. My arms and shoulders, despite my attempt at sunscreen, will undoubtedly blister tomorrow; they sting and radiate a heat all their own. My face has been, mercifully, mostly spared from the UV rays, thanks to my boyfriend’s mother insisting I take a hot pink floppy straw hat to shade me. My boyfriend and I trek across the boardwalk back to his car, carrying our towels, water bottles, and other beach paraphernalia, sand sliding in and out of our sandals. I am deeply grateful for the air conditioning in this modest sedan, and also for its radio: just a few hours earlier, I blurted out my first “I love you” while watching the waves with him—a sentimental move if there ever was one—and wanted whatever Fourth of July Holiday Countdown was on to cover up all the not-talking I was doing.
And the number one American Countdown jam is Bruce Springsteen playing “Jersey Girl” live. Who doesn’t love a Jersey Girl, huh? Enjoy this Tom Waits cover, and keep it tuned here for more holiday weekend music!
I perk up, and stare at the radio. I have never been interested in Springsteen before, but am intrigued by this homage to Tom Waits. I listen along.
“Do you want me to take you to where Springsteen’s from?” my boyfriend asks. “We’re not that far.”
On the way to Asbury Park, we pass sub-developments with looming McMansions, strip malls with Coach and Michael Kors and Le Creuset among their tenants. We drive past the Stone Pony, with my boyfriend offering the important musical history of the venue. The sun is setting behind the building, pink and orange and periwinkle fanning across the horizon. It is stunning, but I am also thinking about how we will have to go home eventually—in this case to his childhood home, where we are staying. This is the weekend I met his parents.
Not that it went badly. But it also did not unfold the way I hoped, exactly. The first question his father asked me over dinner last night was what I did for a living. I recently started work at a large health insurance company. And my parents? I took a long gulp of cabernet before answering. My mother has worked in various part time roles in a grocery store for several decades, along with the bulk of the childcare responsibilities. My father took a job as a custodian at the local high school, but was a skilled lithographer before the advent of Photoshop replaced that industry. I took another long gulp at the end, to unstick my tongue from the rest of my impossibly dry mouth. It felt to me like a scene from a Regency era novel, the kind where a suitor’s worthiness is being assessed. It is hard to feel proud of these origins—which I am—when the person you are dating went to elite boarding schools for eight years, and then to a selective small liberal arts college on scholarships. When I recovered, I quickly added that I purchased my own home at 24.
At the end of the weekend, my boyfriend offers a moment of vulnerability: he is nervous about the doctoral program he will start in just a few weeks. It is stressful and overwhelming, and, like many people about to embark on a PhD, he has concerns about being a failure. I want to comfort him, and I do—but it is mostly accomplished by my hugging him, rather than my claim that failure is relative, and that what constitutes success is highly individual. While probably true, it is questionable who, exactly, I’m trying to reassure with philosophical claims like that.
As I drive home, I hear the DJ introduce a Springsteen song (I’m still in Jersey, after all), and listen with a new interest. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” comes on, a song I recognize, but never realized who performed it. Something is trying to surface as I listen, and it’s the realization that I most often heard this song performed live by a cover band my dad was in while I was growing up. They played a range of basic rock hits, and would play at bars and local events—sometimes even the town’s 4th of July party on the public green. They had a saxophonist, and always struggled to find material that would include him. My father despises Springsteen, quick to chime in with “he’s not my boss” anytime his music comes on the radio or people mention him in conversation.
It is rather striking, actually, that someone who is perceived as an icon for blue-collar America has a nickname so fraught with authority.
Four years later, I’m head-to-toe in J. Crew, out to a moderately upscale dinner on a business trip in the Philadelphia suburbs. After a long day of intense meetings for a Process Improvement Initiative, a meal out together to decompress is required. Dinner is on the company card, so it is a feast. While alcohol is not included, it flows as if it is. It feels a little bit like Mad Men, with my black wool peplum dress and red blazer, knocking back vodka sodas, the blood of steaks pooling in everyone’s plates. I am awkward and soft-spoken in large groups, but suddenly, here, I am charming: they are laughing at my jokes, and leaning in, rapt, when I outline work-related suggestions. Is this what power feels like?
I am new to this world, but know enough to just follow the lead of the others, including sneaking away from my plate for an outside interlude of menthol cigarettes, exhaling into the cool spring night. Unlike most environments, smoking is not a trashy habit in this context, but something indulgent that is earned by those who are overcommitted to their work. A man who I’ve been working closely with on some troubleshooting pulls me aside.
“Have you thought any more about our conversation earlier?” Just outside the conference room that afternoon, when we were about to break for lunch, he told me he was impressed with my work, and was also looking to hire someone for his team soon. The position would be an enormous raise, and includes an option to work from home.
I nod. “Definitely interested. Thanks for thinking of me.” I smile before turning away to dispel my drag. I’m trying not to look too eager but also not disinterested. It strikes me that networking is not unlike a strange flirtation, a feeling that produces a faint souring in my stomach. Although it could just be all that heavy food swimming in vodka.
I check out of my hotel in the morning, and say my goodbyes at the local office branch, making sure to thank my boss for putting me up in such a nice room. I am the only one from my office in Connecticut who was invited to this meeting, and it would’ve been free to just dial in from my desk there. She is a loud woman in her late 40s, with big hair and blue eyeliner. She is known for being a bit bullish, and on weekends you can often find her on a motorcycle. I don’t think she went to college, and has worked her way up to a Very High Rank at our company after many years of service. We get along great. I think we understand each other, both of us valuing the intricacies of procedure and doing things right, and also sharing perhaps some similar strains of imposter syndrome reserved for women who grew up working class. I go to shake her hand, and she pulls me in for a tight hug goodbye.
I walk into the parking lot, laptop bag slung over my shoulder, heels clicking on the blacktop. It is a perfect day—blue and clear and temperate—and I am giddy, despite that I’ll be behind the wheel for at least three hours on such a beautiful afternoon. The minute I turn the key, the piano and harmonica of “Thunder Road” fills my car, and I smile. Born to Run has been in my CD player for weeks. It is undeniably a great album to drive to: high-energy and triumphant, sing-alongable, making even an arduous trip—like my drive in on I-95, over the Tappan Zee, through dense Northern Jersey highways—feel less miserable. I also smile because I’m not going back the way I came, but heading further west, to stay with my boyfriend for the weekend, and the drive is half as long from here as it normally is from my home.
The route is different from this far south, with plenty of highway, but also lazy cows meandering in green fields, smaller routes zigzagging between mountains. My mind wanders to what it might feel like not to have to drive like this anymore: no morning rush hour commute, no marathon drives to the middle of Pennsylvania only to turn around two days later and do it again in reverse. Springsteen’s voice, as hoarse as a construction foreman, brings me back to the double lines in front of me. I read recently in a feature article that Springsteen went straight from trying to book shows at Jersey bars to skyrocketing stardom; this was over the course of several years, but the point being that, despite the themes of his work, he never held a traditional job or had to answer to a supervisor.
I glance at the laptop bag in the passenger’s seat, along with my heels, tossed off to drive in something comfortable, and feel a kind of kinship with Springsteen: both performers in our own ways, faking our way through until it works. With more practice, could I do it even better at my interview in a few weeks? The next time I sat around that kitchen table in New Jersey?
And do I even want to? There is no track on Born to Run that shows us what Wendy and the other characters in the songs do when they leave that town; how unsatisfying to think of them as bankers and real estate agents and the things most people become when they say they’re “getting out.” The mile markers tick by on the shoulder of the road. I tap along on the steering wheel, perking up when I notice I’m just 15 miles from my boyfriend’s apartment. I shout along with the words, the most American of rock anthems to cheer me on, almost there.