Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's not even past.

   The A train's a long ride thru Brooklyn. We're a ways from the mythic express to "Sugar Hill up in Harlem". A subway with an anthem, written by a kid from Pittsburgh. The reality is; you wait. It's a workmen's train. A student teacher's train. A feeder line from deepest Brooklyn into downtown. Brooklyn. Much less Manhattan. Alas, you must take it.
   Some wheelmen aren't so subtle with the brakes. There's an art to releasing them as you lay on the power. Time it wrong and it's like a blown shift. The train bites forward. It jumps, you jump. And curse.
  My mother told me her uncle would sit by the window of his train on their trips across the country into the great Western mountains and he'd stand a spoon in an empty glass. When the spoon rattled more than he cared for he'd start counting, wait for the next mile marker and then jot down the number.
  The next day men would reballast the spot.
  My great uncle, grand uncle I suppose, ran a railroad. How odd.
  I've seen home movies of him sitting by that very window looking very continental in his black blazer and black shirt, a strange Tuscan cast to this Philadelphian power broker.
  He died in 1960. 7 years before I was born. My mother's uncle. The railroad halted operation for three minutes in his honor. I suppose when you invent standard time you get to suspend it. 
  My mother also remembers as a five year old being told by her great grandmother that as a five year old she remembered meeting Confederate soldiers the family used to hide in the basement coming thru the back door of their Alexandria home and pausing in the kitchen.
  1863. My mother tells me this in 1993. Three voices. Three people speak to each other and 130 years pass.
  I was walking down the stairs of my best friend's fifth floor walk up when I noticed that the steel framing for the stairs was bare. It had never been covered or painted over. I followed one of the I-beams back for a few feet and upside down in the middle of the span were the letters J&L.
  As anyone from Pittsburgh knows that's not J and L, that's J&L. Jones and Laughlin. One of the original industrial pillars of the town and nearly every building in Manhattan under 14 stories ( Lord knows why that number) was framed out with Pgh steel. Almost every one. Now I know this conceptually and I've walked up and down the 5 flights of Etsu's place for over a decade but when I put my mind to it, when I put my hand on it, and then walk out into the New York din and look about me, it's astonishing. I think of row after row of homes hung on the hills of Pittsburgh and the names…..the lists of men and women who came in waves to settle and work there and this is what they made. If I could strip away the walls and the brick and the paint and the doors of all of Manhattan and just see the gridded forest of their work. I sometimes wish for it.
  The past compresses, and leaps right into your lap. The riveter who fixed the ceiling of your NY subway stop lived half a mile from your childhood home 100 years ago. The woman who sat for the portrait in the foyer of the second floor galleries of Hartford athenaeum was buried in the earth in 1801 and yet …there's her smile. Those are her eyes. Whitman had it right. Chekov. Shakespeare. Those yet unbidden and unborn, hear us.
  I think it's a kind of a mortal sin that I can't remember every Christmas I've ever had. Toss out the first infant four and that's 41 days. 41 memories. Now I can remember 41 books. 41 lines of poetry is a laugh, something done in a day. 41 meals is easy, 41 women not even a question, but Xmas, one of the central rituals of my life I have left lost to busy memory. And they're literally in me, fixed in my brain and its wiring like buried crystals waiting for the water of I-should-give-a-greater-damn. But I didn't. I let them be mortal.
  So why do we? Why do we allow the cord to slip from the hand? Why let the loved one walk away? Why not speak out, write it down, remember it unmixed with baser matter?
  I can remember things Vronsky did in Anna Karenina more than I can remember all of junior year in college. I go to Gettysburg and walk around and I feel closer to their needs, those of these doomed men than my own the following day. Or the day before.
  I went to Trinity College once, not to Dublin where Swift and Beckett and Wilde went but to Hartford. Connecticut. Where not only does time forget, but no one remembers when time ever gave a damn. Birthplace of Colt Arms and the Insurance industry, the Scylla and Charybdis of American progress, this town gives new hope to backers of the Neutron Bomb. Evidence that if we dropped one it wouldn't be so bad. Business would carry on.
  My grandfather and great grandfather on my mother's side went to Trinity. I thought I owed it to them both to walk the campus. And a woman I'd loved madly and stupidly had gone as well. Something had to happen in the halls of trees that lead from the gate. And it did. They were, two of whom I had never even met and the girl with her ice blue eyes, all around me. Like the groan of planes you think are in the soundtrack to a play you're watching but are simply planes flying over the theater. Or music scored in the film next door. You follow, it's lovely, but it's not your life.
  But anyone who thinks life has a soundtrack you get to choose is truly lost. To history.
  So maybe that's it…..I try not to try and remember because to me it's like always being your own DJ, always using the I-pod in the car, like you have any idea that you know what you really need to hear.


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  3. Memories ... that is a tricky topic. They never ever do what I want them to do. It is just like somebody else is sitting in my brain sorting things out and he has totally different priorities than I have.
    It even seems that I struggle most with the most precious memories. I try for example so hard to remember the voice of my father, but I cannot. Probably it is self protective because when I heard his voice from a tape years ago - he was dead for a couple of years already at that time - I had the worst breakdown and fall back into the darkness of grief ever. Maybe that was when the guy in my head decided to put that one away in the "not good - mute out" box.

    My wonderful and so short time in Pittsburgh runs out as we speak. One week gone in the wink of an eye, good byes said for another six months (hopefully not more). I am trying to get hold of every second and of course it is not working. They seem to run through my hands like sand.

    But the writing helps (me). The pictures and stories help. They cannot really overrule the man who stores away all the good stuff and seals the boxes, but it still helps to keep images impressions, feelings, words, hugs and laughs alive a tiny little bit longer.

    One more night to go. Off to CEC now. Let's go Pens!

  4. Sometimes memories can be a double edge sword. They can make you laugh and cry at the same time. Some of my best memories are when we would be opening Christmas presents but it would be the middle of the night because my father was such a big kid that he couldn't wait to see our faces when we saw what Santa had left us. I sometimes think he was more excited than we were. But it's memories like those that keep him alive to me even though he's been gone for seven years. I just hope my kids have as much fun talking about their memories of being little as I have.

  5. This piece, so beautifully written, has played in my mind since reading it a week ago. Memory—fractured, powerful, unreliable...It connects, as so perfectly evidenced here, the past to the present, though not always in ways that can be predicted. I have long wondered why my strongest memory before the age of ten is not of birthdays or Christmas or even loss, but of Vanessa Redgrave, swathed in velvet and fur, surrounded by what I now suspect is a sea of fake snow—Camelot, the drive-in, 1968 or possibly 1969...What, I thought, is wrong with me? Others are so sure of their memories—personal and precious. This entry, apart from providing a glimpse into a world and a time I am completely unfamiliar with, offers me the hope that I am not a freak of nature, nor somehow deficient as a human being. So, thank you, and for what it's worth, please keep sharing.

  6. Some of my favorite passages in literature are derived from the narrator’s memory. One of the more celebrated examples of this is, Proust’s “Episode of the Madeleine” from In Search of Lost Time. He beautifully illustrates how a crumb of the cookie evoked a poignant memory from his childhood, and he does this through sensory imagery. I love the snippets of memories you give the reader in this piece, but if I were to critique, I would say that using more sensory imagery would make it more powerful. Having walked the fields of Gettysburg countless times, I am always haunted by the solemnity in the faces of the mourners, how, even on the hottest of days, the air is heavy and seems to settle on the skin. Every time I step on frozen ground and hear the crunch of the ice, I think of the time not so long ago when I stood on the very spot Colonel Joshua Chamberlain defended against the Confederate army. These are effortless examples, (and a bit cliché) I’m sure yours will be much more eloquent. I think if you give your readers a more intimate insight into your memories via the senses, you could really blow them away. Not living in New York, I want to know what the subway smells like… what is the New York din? The sound of the trains? The traffic? You get the picture.