Tonight I am going to see Bruce Springsteen for the first time. It’s a big deal.
Not because his live shows are legend. Or because his songs sustained me through some of the darkest hours of my life. But because it feels like coming home.
I wasn’t ‘Born in the USA’, but I should have been. I moved there before I could walk or talk. I was brought up in the boroughs of New Jersey, where I learned to navigate language with a certain tone and twang. My Fort Lee address was the first one I learned to recite. I made up a little tune in my head to remember the zip code – oh-sevenoh-twofour.
I thought I belonged there. My South African parents, working abroad in NYC, split up when I was just starting school at Fort Lee’s Madonna Convent. For a couple of years I spent afternoons and evenings with a day mother in the neighbourhood. Her name was Anna.
Anna lived in John Street. She was Italian American and Catholic and vast. She wore loose tent dresses and flat open shoes that showed her cracked heels. She was solidly there for me when very little else was.
It was a neighbourhood where people came home tired from factory shifts and watched daytime television (and then watched Vietnam and Watergate unfold on the late-night news). They went to church. They sent their kids to wars. They ran pizza parlours on Main Street and hair salons in their basements. And some took in other people’s kids for a little extra cash.
I remember interminable bingo games in the church hall, where grownups sat stolid on grey foldout chairs but yelled when their numbers came in. In winter, we kids made angels in the dirt that gathered in the corners of parking lots, hoping they would freeze over and still be there in spring. I have a scar on my left palm from the giant splinter that went in there, from the playground’s steel-and-wood merry-go-round. Anna and hairdresser Nancy tried to get it out with a needle burned clean over a flame, but they couldn’t find it. It came out on its own a couple of months later.
Anna’s son Ronald resented me being around. If he wasn’t scowling at me he was taunting me – especially at night when I pressed my nose against the window, waiting for my dad to get back from his late news deadline and take me to my other home. Our apartment was only a few short blocks – and a jump in income bracket – away. It overlooked the Hudson River and Manhattan. I watched two towers go up on the other side and thought they were building a ‘Wolf Trade Centre’.
Ronald had GI Joe action men and baseball cards, but I wasn’t allowed in his room. When I slept over it was on Anna’s living room sofa under a scratchy olive brown military blanket. I don’t know who it once belonged to.
Anna drove a big long car and took us to Dairy Queen on the way back from visits to cemeteries and the homes of her friends where there were knobbed plastic runners to keep the carpets clean and the store plastic stayed on the furniture. The houses always smelled of cooked meat. I remember spaghetti and meatballs, and breaded pork-chops with mashed potatoes, washed down with Coke.
There were crucifixes everywhere, and lots of pictures of Madonnas. The Catholic church was at the centre of everything, but the half-hour when Days of Our Lives came on was also sacrosanct; when Anna said it was time for ‘her program’ you had to keep quiet.
Whoa, Fat Lady, Big Mama, Missy Bimbo sits in her chair and yawns …
If I was lucky she’d switch over to I Dream of Jeannie after. When I wished on the first star at night I asked to be like the television genie, just to be able to blink and make all my other wishes come true.
Our priest was Father O’Connor. My dad was agnostic but Anna made sure I had my first communion; Nancy of the underground parlour set my long blonde hair in ringlets. I couldn’t sleep that night because the curlers dug into my scalp, but the next day while I was waiting in my white dress and immaculate shoes a boy told me I looked pretty. It was my first ever compliment.
What does all this have to do with Bruce Springsteen? Besides the fact that around then he would be releasing his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, which was not so far down the road. I was still too young, of course, to dream of riding the backstreets. My life was more Sesame Street than E Street. But that was all about to change.
Fast-forward close to a decade and four different countries later: I’m being yanked, kicking and screaming, to South Africa to ‘find my roots’. The RSA of the mid-eighties is a place I don’t understand and don’t want to be because the little I do understand about it, I don’t like.
My mother chose to marry a diplomat, a representative of the apartheid government, for her second husband. In the scant handful of years I’d spent living under his roof in foreign lands, I’d learned that his dodgy politics was only one of the slippery things about him. Sure, there were material privileges. But I soon learned that all things come at a price. When I finished high school I couldn’t get away fast enough.
I spent my graduation summer with my dad on the U.S. East Coast – he was a correspondent in D.C. now. Born in the USA was topping the charts, everyone was Dancing in the Dark, and thanks to good grades I was accepted into every college I applied for.
But I was choke-chained to this scarred country. My mother insisted – blind-channeling her husband’s patriotism – that I give up my college dreams and return to South Africa. Pretoria. Culture shock doesn’t begin to describe it.
My mother wasn’t around during most of my early New Jersey days so she wouldn’t have understood why discovering Bruce Springsteen felt like a revelation for me. I didn’t share my passion with her anyway. We lived in the same house but barely spoke.
I got a day job at a clothes store, did night shifts at an Italian restaurant, and planned my escape. I made a friend who loaned me her Vespa scooter, and I rode it to the local record library and took out every Springsteen album they had.
When we found the things we loved,
they were crushed and lying in the dirt
we tried to pick up the pieces
and get away without getting hurt…
Each and every night, when I got home from my second work shift of the day, I retreated to my darkened bedroom. I’d made a cell-sized space, barricaded myself in behind bookshelves. With hi-fi speakers both sides of my pillow and Springsteen on the turntable, I cried for dashed dreams, and for the boy I’d left behind. I didn’t cry for this Beloved Country. Not yet.
When you’re an only child of split and deflected parents, living over four different continents in as many years, with no single person along for the whole ride to hold the narrative with you, you can get kind of lost. Your internal compass gets dizzy. Bruce anchored me.
Bruce’s best songs are stories, and those stories became my lifeline. My bedtime tales were of misfits and circus clowns, of lost hopes and thwarted ambitions, of busted rebels and girls on porches with torn dreams and wrinkles around their eyes from crying themselves to sleep at night … Those songs reached in and grabbed at the heart of my adolescent self-centered misery. And reminded me that there were other, bigger, miseries in this world. Misery loves company, after all.
‘Born’ had been everywhere that stateside summer I had just been wrenched out of. Now I went further back – The River, Nebraska, Born to Run, and oh, oh, oh, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I found I liked the really early stuff best. ‘New York City Serenade’ from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle conjured rain-slicked streets with hydrants and fire escapes running down brick-sided buildings. I could be diamond Jackie doing a boogaloo down Broadway – I used to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade from my dad’s Broadway press-office window, so I knew its geometry. No matter how far away the mad dog’s promenade was from the Pretoria bedroom where I locked myself away each night, I could go back there, in my mind.
Bruce wasn’t just taking me home, he was tuning my musical ear.
My memories got tangled up with his images. The lumbering tubas of ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ conjured the fun fair they held every year on the field next to the Madonna school.
The machinist climbs his Ferris wheel like a brave
And the fire eater’s lyin’ in a pool of sweat, victim of the heat wave
Behind the tent, the hired hand tightens his legs
on the sword swallower’s blade
The circus town’s on the shortwave
I had been standing underneath the Ferris wheel when Anna told somebody I was actually from Africa. They shouted and looked at me different. Somebody said something about lions.
Now I was in this rogue nation’s capital with no friends, no prospects, and a family that felt like a danger zone. How did it come to this? Told to discover my roots, I discovered a country that was lying to itself. Pretending things were one way, when they were shamefully another. Building walls of collusion around some of its citizens, to seal in the exclusion of the rest. A country averting its eyes from its own injustices, on the brink of something frightening; a place where evil doings were kept just out of your eye line, but were there to see if you chose to look.
Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland.
Got a head-on collision, smashin in my guts man.
I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand.
I was biding my time until I could get out of these Badlands, get back to a place I understood. In the meantime, in my dark Pretoria bedroom, I put the music on and disappeared into the howl of Something in the Night.
And always, in that gulf between urgency and possibility, between the Hot Rod Angels revving their engines and the escapees on the interstate, between the young lovers going down to the midnight river and the sexual innuendo of Candy’s Room, there was a place where someone always had the tenacity to get up and carry on. Where phoenixes rose out of the flames of adolescent fire.
Walk tall …
Bruce whispered to a waterfall cascading piano scale,
… or baby don’t walk at all.
I made my escape: after a few months I had saved enough money to pay for the first year in a South African university. I chose the one furthest away from Pretoria.
In my res room at the University of Cape Town I put a poster on my wall – the iconic back-view blue jeans and American flag of Born in the USA – and bore the derision of people who didn’t understand that it wasn’t an expression of mindless patriotism, but represented a critique of a system that was failing the workingman. They didn’t get that it had more to do with the struggles going on in this country’s working class, living in the blighted flatlands that the university overlooked. If the songs had local relevance, it had nothing to do with waving flags or downing kegs in student beer halls.
Inevitably I got drawn into those struggles. I went to my first protest march soon after arriving at the university. And I never left Cape Town, after that, save for short work trips or holidays. I never made it back to the United States. First work kept me here – I had student loans ‘no honest grad could pay’; then Mandela was released and no one wanted to be anywhere else; then I had a child and couldn’t leave even if wanted to. (Is there any urge so strong as the one not to repeat your parents’ mistakes?)
But sometimes the smell of that white-flowered bush that blossomed in the greenery outside our apartment up on the Palisades will strike at random and stop me in my tracks.
I often wonder what Fort Lee looks like now. I swoop in on my old apartment through GoogleEarth and it’s all still there. I can’t find Anna’s house, although I do find John Street. It’s just a few blocks from the church. I don’t recognise the shapes of the houses, viewed from above. I don’t even know if Anna’s house, or she, is there anymore.
Is it hyperbole to say that Bruce Springsteen saved my life? I’m not one for indulging in suicidal thoughts, but looking back on those dark days, in the midst of some very real family and societal traumas, wrenched from everything and everyone I loved … sometimes disappearing felt like the only sane thing to do. And Bruce Springsteen gave me a way to do that; a way I could come back from.
He also made it feel like there was one other person who got it. And when you’re down in that well, one other person is all it takes.
Tonight I’m going to see Bruce Springsteen for the first time, and it’s a big deal.