Courtesy Deborah Julian Street Photography
Try as hard as I have, I can’t remember what road I took to that odd place in gritty downtown Binghamton.
I don’t know from what circumstance I climbed up the stairs or why I came here, to this apartment I hadn’t seen before and never would again.
Somehow, afloat in this small, peculiar eddy, I’m relaxed. I remember that, but the context is gone.
My friend and his girl paused, briefly, and he — it frustrates me that the names are lost too, but he looked sort of like Mickey Rourke when he was too young to have abused himself much, like the charismatic character in Diner – my friend raised his upper half in what looked like a yoga position for strengthening the lower back and joked, and his girlfriend laughed along.
Then, I left them and went out to talk to the roommate in the next room.
One Memory Plucked Out of a Thousand Others
What’s strange is that this memory floats alone, like it rolled out in an alternate reality, like those bobbers we used when fishing as kids, connected to the line but only slightly, waiting for a pull.
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound, like Bob Dylan in Brownsville Girl.
I can’t really connect it with anything beyond or outside that third floor apartment on, I think, Water Street in Binghamton. Except the chilly emptiness along the sidewalks edging the Chenango River that tells me it’s late winter or early spring, the time when seasons run together, when I opened the building door and climbed upstairs.
Names or how I got there or how this guy was a friend of mine are gone, but we’d been hanging out together like accomplices without a crime, bound as outsiders. I feel the honor among thieves kind of connection.
Several times, I failed at trying to hook this memory up with anything else. I still can’t find that thread.
Worse yet, I can’t figure out how or why I kept this one memory plucked out of a thousand other things that had to be going on.
Is It Magic?
Some dampness and the raw chill of lingering winter dominate the atmosphere, and it makes more sense if it happened around the time I lived on the streets, brief though that was, when I was seventeen.
How did I get there?
Where did I go afterward?
Did I leave their apartment alone?
Did I ever see any of these people again?
I don’t know.
So, this grabs me by the arm and takes me deep into the kind of insight of which I sometimes wish I missed out. What good is there in knowing this?
Life is not secure. The anchors might all be faked. It’s possible.
And you might have done things you regret but won’t remember, on top of the protective rationalizations already so clear, acting out as a person with a flicker of a lifespan.
There must be some magic about what we remember and what refuses to come back or lock onto the grid.
Sacks and the Riddles Inside Our Skulls
Oliver Sacks writes about a man who remembers everything, total recall, the burden of which might drive even a really nice person insane, just from the weight.
What I took to be true from the story, though, is that all of us have access to everything, but we inherit and develop filters that keep certain things — trivia, false impressions, sensory errors, clownish social miscues, pain and regret — out as we edge away from childhood.
Sacks’ patient somehow didn’t get his filters.
There was nothing else exceptional about him. It’s not like he had a head the size of a basketball that gave him extra space for highlight reels, garbage and cruder events leading up to the terminus of Western Civilization or anything obvious like that.
And while we’re at it, what about the savants who can’t tie their own shoes but can whip up advanced mathematics on request?
In what compartment next to truncated tracks for learning anything useful do they park that?
How do they access the unfamiliar genius having a coffee and donut inside their skulls, waiting to be asked?
And the ones who can play back Mozart sonatas after a single hearing but don’t know what a note is or even a sheet of music?
(Poor Mozart always gets dragged up as the example, perfect Mozart, perfect example, but he isn’t as muddy or troubled as Beethoven or Berlioz).
Can savants tickle the keys just as well when it’s Haydn, Bach’s Masses or Glass? How?
What within us has tendrils of perfection only a few get to use? Or, is it more selective?
Do savants get compensated with a spritz of genius after being left out of so much else?
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Random Mass Assembled
No drama fused into my one and only late night among these last friends made it memorable.
If I meditate on it, what comes through is the lesson, the plain and simple happiness increasingly hidden, maybe inaccessible, behind the foundations of make-believe in which we live, pretending to be elevated as our hearts empty out.
The dreary isolation surrounding this episode gets swept off into the trash bin of who needs it memory.
If you don’t learn to embed your memories with some order-inducing color, your story goes ragged and random. You throw a lot of things away you should have kept.
It’s all still in the basket, but you can’t get to it and it can’t get to you.
Read enough Sacks and you realize that an injury, a blow to the head, can be like tipping the basket over and all the discarded junk tumbles back onto the prairie of who you are, enough to make who you were seem like some ratty remnant with most of its threads frayed.
Life Afloat in Time
A random universe of scenes comes up like bubbles adrift in a pool of extremely heavy water:
Hiding behind a rickety garage in the middle of a winter night, the cold, quiet wind whispering against the rotting wood, watching Ginny’s inebriated parents walk the worn-down path to a house full of children they made but couldn’t afford, me isolated in the shadows, and a year later, when she didn’t love me anymore, standing in knee-deep snow, trying to see her through curtained windows, having hiked all the way out there in the biting cold, knowing I’d never touch her again but for some crazy reason needing a physical fracture….
Walking toward the crown of city streets between Herald Square and the shows on Broadway, Christmas lights brightening the buildings at and above street level, and me jubilant over a check for $137,000 in my pocket…
Stranded in the night at the base of Pike’s Peak, tattered suitcase to sit on and Gene Pitney singing It Hurts To Be In Love from somewhere out in the irregular field of small, incandescent lights, really lost, waiting, wondering…
Kissing Jodi on a summer night in the pouring rain at the intersection of Delaware and Utica when we were young and first in love…
Watching Kenny fall wildly backward from the batter’s box while my fastball, aimed straight at his head, buzzed by...
Dozens keep coming, for some reason, finding the screen ahead of a billion others.
The strangest thing, some element puts me right back there, in the scene again.
Casting them as memories detaches them, like file cabinets of illusion, but they aren’t broken off. Somewhere, somehow, they are still real.
Mysterious Captain of Jill Bolte Taylor’s Ship
They come up whole, like the big chunks, for no reason, in an overstocked minestrone with a dense, invisible broth.
Am I being shown something or is this more like a random, transcendental meteor shower, blown through the ether, creating accidents?
Uncertainty convinces me we are barely on the cuff of awareness, fooling around in an estimated world that will someday be an embarrassment to our descendants.
A simple solution is to let most of it fall off in the vapor trail. That’s what I think, if not what I do.
You’re never going to understand anything more than the general essence, anyway, and why should you? Life isn’t a story.
A story is a clever mechanical device we explain to ourselves and others to mediate an architecture of reality that will be pulverized if found naked. It’s a game, a built-in habit, one we picked to stick us all together on this eternal grid.
We all have it, even Oliver Sacks’ guy who never forgets anything. His story is the same, just with all the detritus still stuck in it.
Which is why books like Finnegan’s Wake and abstract art get to me.
The mission to represent something real marches on.
It’s why the rhythms of Cummings’ most angular poetry taught me so much. Poetry, Wallace Stevens tuned and tuned and tuned and tuned, is only about those beautiful spikes.
The less time spent on foundations, the better. Let it all hang out.
My friend Rich used to refer to people “opening their kimonos,” but it’s also like the scene in Scrooged where the ghost’s robe parts to expose hell’s Bosch-like inferno in the gut.
That central observation station, the traveler at the wheel, stays, observing, conducting, appreciating, held in a greater coherence than the infinite medley playing.
In Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Genius, she describes in startling detail how she watched her own brain go to mush.
Lots to learn when a brain scientist has a chance to tell her story from the inside, but what was dumbfounding, what was unforgettable, was that she stood up at the TED Conference to tell her story at all.
What coherent person was inside, undamaged, taking the whole thing in, keeping the record while her brain fried and, then, hung around the coffee shop to startle us with anecdotes?
Who was that?
Do we all get one?
Is it me or we?
We must, I figure, all have one of whatever irreducible thing it is.
How could we all walk around figuratively headless?
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What do you remember or forget?