I sometimes wonder what the soundtrack to my life sounds like to other people. It’s an odd supposition, I know, but I wonder about it. Do they watch me walk down the street and hear a silly Allan Thicke theme song? Do they hear a sweeping Jerry Goldsmith musical score, or an eclectic Quinton Tarantino 70s Mix Tape Soundtrack? Or do they hear some ELO/Vangelis synth-pop orchestration from the 80s.
Or do they hear heavy peppy beats of De La Soul, Arrested Development; the smooth styling of Boys II Men?
I only wonder this because I’m the hero of my own story–at least the protagonist. We all are–we’re the center of our own story. It’s how we’re wired: we see from our own eyes and the timeline revolves around our own experiences. We are, to the extent of things, our own Movie–or at least a long running TV series.
Movies have soundtracks.
When out and about, I sometimes have my own theme music, my own score.
It’s what plays in my head, the song that I hear either through my personal player, my car stereo, or more likely, from the huge library in my own brain.
But I sometimes wonder what other people think plays in my soundtrack. How do they perceive me? Am I a thunderous villain? Am I the bumbling sidekick? Am I some vague romantic hero? A thug? A monster? Comic relief? Each has a different tune that plays when they appear on the screen, and, much so, on the screen of our life.
It was shortly after the L.A. Riots (or L.A. Uprising, depending on how you view it) began, not long after the verdict on the mis-named Rodney King Trial came down. We had to go shopping for something, Mom and I. My Grandmother had stayed home to mind the house, shotgun close by.
Mom went into the store, and I waited on a bench. There was a middle-aged, graying Caucasian woman already on the bench when I sat on the other end. I smiled slightly. The day was odd, the mall eerily uncrowded, quiet, and sterile feeling.
I saw fear in her eyes. Fear at my very Dwayne Wayne, preppy shirt with pegged pants self. She forced a smile, and then moved her purse to the other side of her, and scooted further–unnecessarily further–towards the far end of the bench, where she was already sitting.
I was alone.
When the verdict was first announced, I and my friends were busy trying to set up for our Spring Musical at our high school–42nd Street. We’d spent the better part of an hour trying to figure out how to get a 9ft tall dime through an 7ft door (You take both swinging doors off their hinges, remove the frame and then push the damn thing through on the diagonal, scraping a little of the rented prop off in the process).
“The verdict just came back.” One of the kids had been on stage, painting a flat and listening to the radio.
We looked at him, our rainbow of faces looking at him expectantly, all with the same question.
“Shit.” Someone gasped from behind me.
We finished loading in, rehearsed some, cried some and then waited for our rides to arrive. Mine was late. I dropped a quarter in the payphone (remember those?) and dialed home. Fast busy. Called my mom’s pager. Fast busy. Called my mom’s number at work.
“We’re sorry, all circuits are busy. Please try your call again later.”
Smoke was rising from the north somewhere. A siren blared in the distance. My best friend’s mom pulled up and suggested that I come home with them. My mom was almost an hour late, so yeah, I did.
I think Les Miserables was playing in the car.
“Man, did you see 7th street?” someone called from down the street. “It looks like the DMZ! Bricks and glass everywhere!” It was an exaggeration, but it was happening, a store or two.
Mom pulled up to my friend’s house, in a firmly white, middle class neighborhood in Long Beach. I’d been sitting in stunned silence watching the news. A long haired, blonde biker cum surfer dude was lighting fire to a palm tree next to the freeway. A black man and a mexican man stood shoulder to business suited shoulder shouting, “No Justice, No Peace!” Someone sang We Shall Over Come.
I was in college, my freshman year, months after everything. My Korean Suitemate and I argued all the time over racial politics-his Long Island sensibilites clashing with my Compton ex priori life. I was in a play about death and dying; I played in turns a Vietnam surgeon, and later, his ghost/guardian angel.
We’d wrapped the show, and were moving props and set pieces back into storage. I was at the front of the line, carrying a heavy, prop Payphone, while the rest of the cast, lovely blonde and brunette actors and actresses of paler persuasion carried electric equipment, speakers, clothes.
I was humming Goodnight Saigon, as I’d taken to doing to get in character. It was stuck in my head.
A siren blared, red and blue lights flashed and a spotlight shone…on me. Only me.
I snapped. Stupid.
“Yes, very suspicious! A black man, in a black man’s city, wearing a Yale T-Shirt carying a pay phone. There are eight of us here! Why me?” I was running off of no sleep, and was probably still pissed about an argument over whether it was reasonable for an older Korean shop owner to have shot a 14 year old black girl in the back of the head, punches thrown or not.
“Very fucking suspicious! Officer, I’m tired, this is heavy. If you want to stop me, shoot me.” I turned and stomped off as the spotlight trailed off of me, and onto someone else.
“He’s tired officer! Sorry! He’s with us!”
“We’re just finishing up a play.”
“Cold Sweat–over at the Yale Rep.”
“Oh yeah…” I felt the light on the back of my head. “I saw that last week. Good job. Be safe.”
Billy Joel sang in my head “AND WE WOULD ALLLL GO DOWN TOGETHER! YES WE WOULD ALLLL GO DOWN TOGETHER!”
I got pulled over one night, after a punishing eighteen hour day on set. It was the second night in a row of that, and I was fading quickly; I changed from my usual audiobook to something by The Decemberists, “This Is Why We Fight” I think. Loud, dissonant, singable. I saw the red lights of the parked patrol vehicle parked to the side of the long offramp, and tensed, but knowing that I was almost home, had nothing to fear and had a long way to go to get to the end of the ramp, it was all good.
I stopped at the sign, turned on my blinker and then pulled to the right, prepping for my turn. It was a block and a half down when the blue and red lights came on behind me, and the spot shone in my side view mirror (it’s on purpose–to put the driver into disorientation and keep the her/him from seeing the officer’s approach).
Honestly, not having any idea why I was being pulled over, and quite frankly, starting to panic (exhaustion does that), I turned off the car, turned off the radio, rolled my window down, put my elbow in front of the mirror (so as not to lose my night vision) and put both hands on the wheel at 10 and 2. And, were my skin of a lighter complection, most likely would have been white knuckled.
“Good evening officer, how may I be of assistance?” No sarcasm. Just lots of years of knowing better. My voice was rising in pitch. Fear? It was only the police, right? Right? Long Beach, PD. Highway Patrol? Signal Hill PD!? Signal Hill didn’t have any issues with traffic stops that I heard of.
“I pulled you over because you ran that stop sign back there.” Not the usual pre-amble. No calming “Do you know why I pulled you over?” No “sir.”
I ran no stop sign. “Um…what stop sign officer?” I don’t think I looked up from his name tag. Willing myself to memorize it. No eye contact.
I heard the irritation in his voice. “The stop sign back by the freeway there.”
Suddenly, I found myself pissed. “No…I stopped.”
“You blew right threw it.”
“If you say so officer. Apologies.” I was far more curt than I would normally ever be when getting pulled over. Usually, I would thank the officer for pulling me over, keeping me safe, and wish him a good night–never with any sarcasm. That night, it was just. Heavy. I quickly got back on script, beginning to shake.
“May I get my information for you, sir?”
“I have to reach inside my glove compartment for my insurance and registration, is that OK?”
“My license is in my back pocket, may I reach for it?”
I fumbled about.
“Have you been drinking?”
“No, sir. I’m just really tired…and police make me nervous.” I pushed my fedora back on my head, loosened my tie, handed him my ID.
“I’m going to write you a ticket for running the sign. Be more careful, sir.” His voice softening, as he peered into my car seat filled back seat.
“I will. I’m only a mile from home; heading home now, actually.”
He waited for me to pull out. I sat there for a minute. Calming down. He waited. I waited, and then, finally, un-usually, he pulled off first, turned around and then drove off into the night.
I rode home in silence.
When I walk around, there’s almost always some song in my head. Sometimes I overlay the song with the show that’s playing in front of me. Sometimes, I put a story to the people that I see, write dialogue in my head and give them a soundtrack.
This one is having an affair with that one. He is secretly supporting a family in Borneo with the money he makes from his side job as a bouncer. She is a member of the Norwegian royal family on a quiet vacation and rendez-vous with the ambassador to Eritrea. She’s actually a DJ/Journalist/Bartender on a coffee break. He’s an aspiring poet who hates his day job as a stock trader. She’s really a He, but is hiding from the mafia, her ex-girlfriend and her parents. He’s actually a time traveling dog named Rex who’s wearing a robotic person suit–Badly.
All the while, a song is playing, music from all sorts of artists. The Who. The O’Jays. New Order. The Commodores. The Verve. D’Angelo. Dolly Parton. Puffy Amiyumi.
I wonder how people see themselves as they navigate through this world, over this water covered stone we call Earth. Through this country we call The United States of America, in their town, on their street. What’s playing in their heads. Are they the hero? Is there soaring music playing? Is their heart heavy and can it be lightened with song?
And then I wonder, what music do they hear when they see me?