My second-worst summer job in college was a waiting gig. It was at a chain restaurant that was a Denny’s in all but name and branded color scheme, an all-night diner that was only a step or two up from being fast food. I was 19 and more or less consistently miserable as a person, but especially as waiter.
This was also the first summer I had a car, a beat-up Nissan Sentra whose most important aspects from my perspective were a) it was a working automobile and b) it had a CD player. I was told that I would make wads of cash from people who were kicked out of the bars at 2 am, so I asked for overnights, and when I got off work at 5 in the morning, instead of going home to sleep, I’d take an hour to drive around the woody periphery of St. Paul following a few favorite routes, listening to the Best of U2 1980-1990 on repeat.
The most beloved in my repertoire of drives was a long road I had discovered one morning roving aimlessly. Lilydale Road cut through a forest unexpectedly sandwiched between St. Paul and the suburb across the river. It stretched a good three miles uninterrupted through the woods, past a secluded lake, and felt something like a secret trail I alone had discovered. From start to end, it was just long enough that I could turn onto it (from Plato Boulevard, no less!) with the faint hope that when I finally intersected Sibley Memorial Highway I would have found the notion that could give me some sense of peace. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I was operating on the belief that if I thought long enough I might find it anyway.
And there was Bono to help. I probably also listened a lot that summer to the official release of Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” concert (which had come with the car) but my only specific memory is winding around a back road at 6 in the morning, listening to U2’s “Bad.” It was just the right time to appreciate the song: I had never heard “Bad” on the radio before, and for about a week I had the kind of affair with it that’s only possible when you’ve only heard a song three times and you think it might be the one that finally subsumes you completely in its sonic embrace.
If that didn’t do it, I could still go for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” U2’s megahit paean to yearning, and what I thought of its weaker cousin, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” You can listen to a song for years without thinking much about it – even songs you love – and now, really looking at “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” I can see it for what it is. The chorus appears to be an open expression of that human universal, restlessness, but upon closer inspection the song is not about the singer’s dissatisfaction with himself. In effect it is more like an indictment of a lackluster world and probably even the woman (?) the song is addressed to. It’s about how nothing yet seen actually brings the singer any peace, but it seems like it might be laying this failure at the feet of the world and not the singer. It’s a spiritual humblebrag.
I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
I might have been dimly aware of this as I was driving around, but I did not care, because I still had not found what I was looking for. Today, having found some of what I am looking for, I still don’t really care if the song is self-serving. Just yesterday, I listened to the song for the first time in years, and the cresting wave of the chorus still sent chills up my spine, an utterly satisfying expression of dissatisfaction that is itself what I am looking for, if only for a minute.