Dream On: An Ode to Donna Summer

Ever since I was a child, my wildest dreams have always involved some kind of performance. Can I just be a rock star already? I remember thinking as young as 4 years old. Trouble is, I'm not musically inclined. After a night of karaoke, my cousin joked, "Suzie, your agent called. He doesn't have any work for you -- ever." After a college semester in Italy, I suddenly had hope for my mediocre singing skills: I'd ditch my Merleau-Ponty Reader, dye my hair platinum blonde, get a boob job -- this was key -- and secure work as a cruise ship singer in Italy, where the standards seemed to be, um, different. But fantasies like this have always worked precisely because they'll never happen. I'm shy.

Over the years, my instincts to connect with others have brought me out of this shell, time and time again -- not just in performance, but in everyday life. I live in New York City, a place I love for the infinite chances one has to talk to strangers. I'm known amongst my friends as the person who can -- and will -- talk to anyone, standing in a gym café, strolling along the Hudson River, riding an elevator for just a few floors. Most people I know laugh when I tell them I'm shy -- and for good reason.

But what they don't understand is that my outgoing-side has been a long time in the making. Back in 2006, for example, no one could have mistaken me for being gregarious. Depressed, I lived like a disinterested bystander in my own life, isolating from my friends, one by one. Despite working at a national non-profit dedicated to cardiovascular disease prevention, I'd become a chain-smoker. Once, when on a donor visit, one of my coworkers said that employees who got caught smoking could be fired. I'd screeched, "WHAT?!!?? -- essentially outing my habit. But worse than this, in my quietest moments, on aimless walks through the East Village, I remember thinking, I will never make another friend as long as I live -- a sentiment that, to me, may as well equate to death. What is life without connection?

That November, I had a particularly rough week. In the middle of a presentation at work, I'd completely blanked on an extraordinarily mindless piece of information. (I think I was telling people where to sign their names on a sheet of paper. Yes, that mindless.) Though still I don't know why I panicked, I have no doubts about how it made me feel: rattled, irrationally so. I felt so exposed. Maybe it's because I knew I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. Whatever the reason, I couldn't find my way home.

The same week, my friend Jen emailed me and said, "I have tickets to see Donna Summer. Want to come?" Amy, a mutual friend, had been doing some pro bono design work for a school benefit. Donna Summer was the headliner for the event, which was to be held at the Beacon Theater.

Now, I've loved Donna since I was a young child. In one of my earliest memories, I was in the grocery store, when "Bad Girls" started playing on the speaker. I started singing and doing the choreographed dance moves my older sister had taught me. (I still remember my mother's face when she rounded the corner and saw me. Her eyes popped out of her head. If there were a thought bubble above her head, it may have said, "Um... what are you doing?") My passion for her music never subsided through the years, not even during a relationship with a self-professed music snob who begrudgingly let me wear out Donna's greatest hits album in the cassette player of his beat up Audi. In 1999, I'd walked into a used record shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking for vintage Donna. The guy behind the counter said, "A good Dorchester girl!" before pulling out her greatest hits.

Years later, when I was in grad school, I was late to a lecture because when I'd pulled into the parking lot, Donna was being interviewed on Fresh Air, explaining the origins of "On the Radio." (In case you were wondering, it is based on a true story, though I don't remember whether or not the letter did fall out of a hole in his old brown overcoat.) During the period I was an avid karaoke goer, "On the Radio" was my go-to song.


So when Jen invited me, I said, "YES!" instantly. I wasted no time in inviting Cameron, my friend and frequent karaoke partner, to join me.

When I showed up at the Beacon, another friend was waiting with tickets for Cameron and me. Apparently, he and I wouldn't be able to sit with the group. "I'm sorry these are the last of the tickets, so they're not the greatest seats," my friend said apologetically.

"I don't care! I'd sit in a closet. I'm just happy to be here," I said.

When Cameron and I went inside, though, we learned that we were not in a closet, but in the third row. I turned to him and said, "Gosh, if these are the bad seats, where do you think they are sitting?"

I fidgeted my way through Jon Legend's lovely opening performance. On any other occasion, I would have been thrilled. But now, I was impatient.

Soon, the velvet curtains parted, and Donna, clad in a black leather floor length gown, emerged. I was in heaven. I loved the way she stood, tapping her long nails on the base of the microphone. More importantly, her voice did not disappoint. Her power vocals were so mesmerizing that I almost missed it when she stepped toward the edge of the stage and asked for volunteers.

Cameron looked at me. "Do it!!!" he yelled.

Even the suggestion made me sick. "I can't," I whispered, thinking about how upset I'd been after that presentation. I'd wanted to crawl into a hole. "I'm having a shy week!"

"You must," he said.

I couldn't put my hand up. Donna was right there. She could see me, but I was not so sure I could handle being seen. I wanted to tell Cameron about how I'd botched the low-stakes presentation, how it killed me to have forgotten how to say, "Here's the sign-up sheet," how I'd cringed when I saw the thought bubbles above my colleagues heads, Poor thing.

I repeated, "You don't understand. This is a shy week!"

Instead of wasting time asking me what the hell a "shy week" was, Cameron got aggressive. "Suzie," he said. "I have seen you sing her at karaoke a million times. 'On the Radio.' 'Heaven Knows.' If you don't do it, you're going to regret this for the rest of your life."

It's funny, because Cameron was not a close friend. In fact, I don't think I've seen him since. I'd had plans with a different friend that night, but that friend, a music lover, politely cancelled when I said the words "Donna Summer." I'm lucky Cameron was there, because if he hadn't been, chances are, I never would have thought, He's right. I would regret this for the rest of my life.

The last time I'd felt a surge of energy so potent was years before, at a gala for the Marines Corps. I'd been so moved by the commandant's call to serving America that I momentarily lost my rebel mind and considered, ever so briefly, enlisting.

Before I could feel self-conscious, my hand shot in the air. Donna called me up to the stage immediately. I climbed three steps and froze behind the mike, knees locked, until I saw that "On the Radio" was cued on the monitor. I'd hit the jackpot. I couldn't stop thinking, I am on stage with Donna Summer.

From this point on, the whole experience is a wash of bliss. I do know that there were two other women there, singing back up with me. I sang loudly and danced across the stage during the instrumental break. I squinted into the lights, looking out for my other friends who had the better seats. I couldn't find them and thought, "Where are my people?"

The best part, though, was a sudden sense of dual consciousness. My adult self thought this was hilarious. That part of me was laughing, a lot. This was the most absurd thing that my shy-self had ever done.

Simultaneously, though, the 5-year-old inside of me was thrilled. Inside, I was throwing my head back and shouting, "Yes!" as a heady rush of ecstasy filled every cell in my body. There's no arguing with what you love.2012-05-17-232323232fp36_nu3234__48_974_2325_48658_4ot1lsi.jpeg

On stage, while looking out to a sea of strange faces, I realized that not only had I dreamed of this exact moment as a little girl, but I had also all but forgotten about it, until now.  Onstage, everything was aglow: the faces in the audience, Donna's pretty eyes, the familiar music vibrating through my chest. In that moment, there was no ill-fitting job, no depression, no dimmed hopes -- just disco, Donna, and surrender.

When the song ended, I was the last to leave the stage. Donna gave me a hug, and I squeezed her shoulders, whispering, "Donna, you have no idea!" I stayed so long, I'm sure she started thinking about calling out, "Security!"

I'd uncovered my most childlike self, and I did not plan on sitting through the rest of the concert trying to keep it under wraps. I took out my phone and started texting everyone I knew, sending multiple texts to my sister, my cousin and a friend who from my karaoke days just how deep this love ran. Every time I looked up, I could see Cameron grinning out of the corner of my eye.

After the concert was over, Cameron and I met up with Amy, Jen and some other friends outside. The first things I asked was, "So where were you?" No one missed my subtext, which was: Why hadn't I seen them cheering me on?

As luck would have it, there was a ticket mix-up. They ended up sitting in the seats we were meant to sit in, located in the very last row of the theater. When I heard that, I froze. I thought about all the hours Amy had spent working on this benefit, and here I was, accidentally taking her third row seats. "Oh, no. I'm so sorry," I said.

She laughed it off. Apparently, it had taken them a few moments to figure out I was on stage. Then, when they saw me get off the stage and hop into my third row seat, they all said, "Wait a second -- how did Suzie get way up there?"

It's a good thing I accepted Donna's invitation. That was the only consolation my friend had. Later she said generously, "No one else I know would have gotten up there, so obviously it was meant to be."

The next morning, I quit smoking for good. I joked that I had to save my pipes, just in case Donna called me back. (I also started asking around, "So does anyone know anyone who knows Pat Benetar?") In reality, though, I quit smoking because the experience had taught me something valuable. If I could court that kind of vulnerability, even in unsteady bursts, I could kick this terrible habit. As far as cigarettes, I haven't looked back since.

I wish I could say that night cured my shyness. It didn't entirely. But it was a great moment of being vulnerable, not in the external act, but in what I allowed myself to feel. In the time since, I've attempted that kind of surrender, in other contexts, to varying degrees of success. As hard as it can sometimes be, I've never regretted the impulse, not once.

Today, when news of Donna's death broke, I received more than a few condolence calls. "I'm sorry," said my friend Wah-Ming, when she called to break the news. Hours later, after rushing through a busy day -- appointments, lunch with a friend -- I finally had a moment to digest this sad news on Crosby Street, one of the streets I walked down during that lonely time in 2006. I'd been humming "On the Radio" all day long, half-expecting others to join in. The late day sun filtered down onto the cobblestones, and I could feel tears, an unmistakable mix of joy and sadness, springing to my eyes.

Donna had given me the opportunity of a lifetime -- and I don't mean the part where I warbled onstage behind a mike. In that moment on stage, in the unexpected merging of childhood fantasy and present-day reality, I'd uncovered a long-forgotten dream, a development so unexpected that I could help but ask, And what else? What else is there to uncover?

All thanks to the power of Donna's warm, bold voice, six years later, it's a question I've never stopped asking.