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Preview: I remember / je me souviens

I remember / je me souviens

For those limbic bursts of nostalgia, invented by Proust, miniaturized by Nicholson Baker, and freeze-dried by Joe Brainard in his I remember and by Georges Perec in his Je me souviens.

Updated: 2018-01-22T00:35:48.694-05:00




I remember a science kit we had, or maybe just a booklet of experiments you could do at home, that demonstrated surface tension by having you roll a needle off a fork on to the surface of a cup of water.  The needle would float, or seem to!  I knew that it should sink like a stone, but there it was, on the surface.  Somehow the danger of a floating needle got transferred to the surface tension of the water itself, as though it could prick you with some strange surface needle at any moment.



I remember when we read a little Chaucer in English class in eleventh grade.  Mr. McCormick noted that the Wife of Bath was gat-toothed, and explained that that meant "gap-toothed," that she had a gap between her two front teeth.  I remember that Mr. McCormick's daughter Hannah had a gap between her two front teeth, and that we all thought this was appropriate and that he must have liked the connection with Chaucer.



I remember the movie Vanishing Point, which I mentioned before as an example of an M rated movie.  I didn't understand it.  The movie opens with what will turn out to be its last scene, then is almost all flashback.  In that last scene, time stops just after a car, roaring towards a roadblock, passes another car going the other way.  Freeze-frame, and then the car roaring towards the roadblock just... disappears.

Next scene is forty-eight hours earlier.  The car driver is an outlaw-type, trying to drive cross country at some insane clip, on a bet I think.  He ignores a trooper, and after that the whole thing is a more and more elaborate chase scene.  Cleavon Little -- his first major roll, I think -- is a radio DJ who gets interested in this outlaw hero and starts broadcasting useful information about where cops are congregating, etc.  He's getting this information from what we would now call crowd-sourcing: people have heard him praising the outlaw driver and therefore they phone the radio station with what they've seen, and he broadcasts the information and the driver uses it to evade capture as he keeps roaring westwards.

Eventually we get to the last scene again: road block set up, car tooling down the road, passing the other car as at the beginning.  But now, no freeze-frame, and the outlaw car crashes spectacularly into the bulldozers blocking its way.  And that's the end of the movie (I have a vague memory of a minute or two of sad, anti-climactic clean-up, people milling around, tension all gone out of everyone's life). The hope we'd harbored throughout, that he would escape the lifeless, unimaginative simulacrum of justice that the police represented, was smashed with his car.  We knew he's vanish, or thought we knew, and the only question we had was how?  We assumed the end of the movie would tell us. And then he didn't vanish.  He died.

I remember being very impressed by my parents in our car-ride home.  I was thirteen, so being impressed by them was a big deal.  I said I didn't know what had happened but they both understood and agreed intuitively, without needing to discuss it or work it out, that the opening of the movie showed the legend -- the legend that would live on.  The sad empiric ending (the sad, disappointing, deflating, but uninteresting truth), didn't matter.  The movie did tell us.  (As the John Ford dictum almost has it: film the legend.  And they did.)



I remember that some other buildings had mail chutes, as did my father's office building. But my father would never use them: his general, pain-in-the-ass principle was to rely on mediations as little as possible. That's why I always had to confirm reservations even when they were guaranteed, check theater times despite what the ticket said, etc. And so when I came with him to his office, and when they moved to a new building and I was visiting, I always had to go to the mailbox on the corner with his mail. He also thought letters would get stuck in the mail chute.

Me, I loved (and still love) seeing other people's letters come barreling past me sometimes when I waited for the elevator. I liked how fast they went, as though not made of paper but of metal. The chute forced them to go almost perfectly vertically, so there was almost no air-resistance. And that's why they didn't get stuck!



I remember the bees buzzing around and hanging from the jams in Bellagio when we went down to breakfast.  Somehow they were always there before us, no matter how early we were up.  They were enjoying the morning but they also were part of it, part of the morning they enjoyed.  The had a proprietary interest in the jam, and in the whole scene.



I remember being puzzled that the weeklies -- The New Yorker and The Village Voice (Sports Illustrated too) -- were dated in the future.  I found this very frustrating, because it meant I could never be current (and sometimes that mattered!).  The future didn't actually have news about what would happen in the next few days, and when the date that the weekly was dated finally came along, the past was different from what the publication from the future reported or failed to report.  So I felt a little as though news and time diverged, on the scale of a week, anyhow, and this was disorienting.  It probably contributed to a sense of the difference between public and private -- the world of the future news which never became what the future publication suggested, and the world of what I knew, past news, assassinations, wins and losses, election results.  That knowledge was part of my private world, but the weekly's potential other worlds were always seemingly just the news but always pointed to a time forever inaccessible.  Maybe they do still.



I remember, and even used the term here twelve years ago, "the dynamic duo."  Since I never really put the meanings of the words together but took them as a quasi-proper name, a description so definite as to designate a complex singular term, the team comprising Batman and Robin, while still realizing that it was a description, that the terms had meaning as well as reference, I now suppose that this is a good analogue to Homeric epithet. "Caped crusader" would be another one, though if crusader was slightly obscure, caped was obvious. Maybe that's closer to the Homeric experience or maybe both terms are analogues to analogues in Homer.



I remember how much I liked seeing the occasional Massachusetts license plates on parked cars in Mangattan after the 1973 election.



I remember when Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin ran for mayor and City Council president.  I was against them because they wanted New York City to secede from the state and become the 51st state.   But I was proud to live in one of the original thirteen!

A couple of years later, Breslin's Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight came out.  I loved it when I read the paperback in seventh grade (I remember because I discussed it with Michael Hoban in math class). I remember the hilarious moment, maybe quoted on the back of the book, describing how one mafioso "died of natural causes.  His heart stopped beating when the men who snuck into his bedroom stuck a knife in it."

I remember that that's when I began to like him more and more.

Mailer not so much.

I am not sure why I didn't offer either the lead-up or the sequel of the story I posted nearly ten years ago, when Mailer died, but the whole story is kind of interesting.  I was visiting colleges and staying with friends at Tufts.  We'd rushed to get a dozen donuts when we heard he was speaking since it turned out there wouldn't be time for dinner now.

Like most of the audience, we were sitting on the floor of the Tufts gym. Mailer did his anti-feminist schtick, calling on all the women to hiss.  They did and he gloated: "Obedient little bitches."  So one of the women in our group, meeting aggression with love, got up and took a jelly donut up to him as a kind of show of our generous superiority.  He laughed and tossed it back into the crowd.  They laughed and tossed it back to him.  He laughed and threw it back harder.  It landed right near me, almost back where it started.  It was quite a tough little ball of gluten.  I picked it up and threw it just as hard back at him, imagining I guess, that its consistency was robust enough to last through many such rallies.  But it splatted him right on his jacket and tie.

So he wiped it off with a handkerchief and then went straight to a dramatic effect he was obviously saving: he opened out his attaché case at the podium and took out... a tumbler full of ice and a bottle of scotch, and poured himself a stiff drink.  Everyone loved that.

Then after the talk was over I went up to him as he was moving backstage to apologize -- saying, truthfully, that it was an accident.  I didn't mean to hit him, and certainly would have been happy to have him catch it.  He was with some goon body-guards, maybe Tufts plainclothesmen, maybe his own.  He looked at me witheringly and walked away without a word.

I guess I can't blame him, but it did make me feel better that he was graceless about it.



I remember being somewhat surprised that the verb "mind" could mean "object" or "find unpleasant."  I think our family somehow didn't use the verb at all, so for me it was only a noun.  But the Herings (I think) used the word -- I think someone asked if I minded something he was doing, or if I would mind.  This is all in the dark backward and abysm of time, but I remember not understanding, and then understanding a few minutes later -- maybe he explained it? -- and being puzzled by it.  I still am, a little.  It's an interesting idiom,



I remember a cockroach skittering between my bare foot and the rubber floor pad you stood on by the sink in the kitchen.  I was headed for the sink to use something, and expected to find the usual baby roaches that were much slower to dive for cracks and crevices than their parents.  I was reconciled to them, but I hated the big roaches, and really hated the one that darted under my instep and away under the sink before I could do anything about it but feel disgust.

I remember that I would squash the baby roaches with paper towels, but that my uptown grandmother, when she was cooking at our house or taking care of my sister and me, had no compunction about killing roaches of any size with her bare hand.



I remember that our English teacher brought in Pinter's Dumb Waiter to class one day, in seventh grade, I think.  That would have been Mr. Richards, whose strangeness was partially encapsulated in our slightly uncanny knowledge that he had an identical twin.  (There were fraternal twins in our class, but I never put their present and different twinship together  with Mr. Richards' twinship with another, more mysterious, Mr. Richards, somewhere out there whom we never met.)  I didn't know what a dumbwaiter was, though I believe he explained it.  As a title, it didn't quite feel that you had to know what it meant, since it was a title, and meant the play it named. Mr. Richards had a couple of the students read a scene out loud, which they did with surprised and delighted gusto since it was all about puking.  That's when I learned the word puke.



I remember posting this over thirteen years ago:
I remember that my father had an autographed picture of Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher. I knew he who was: he had thrown the pitch that Bobby Thompson hit into the three-run homer that gave the Giants the 1951 pennant: "the shot heard round the world." My father got the autograph in 1952. I was amazed that somehow Ralph Branca was able to continue to function in the world, giving autographs and such. It was a lesson to me in the fact that people do recover from disaster. But I had contempt for him for recovering. Somehow, I thought this historical moment had to be the end -- at least for the loser. Baseball and fiction didn't seem much different for me at the time: winners could go on living in the world of our knowledge, but losers got superseded. And yet Ralph Branca endured. (I think he endured until the nineties, in fact, though I'm not sure.)
In fact he outlived my father (I guess he was only a few years older), and died this week, at 90.



I remember the wonderful Russian physics and math books that I found one summer (after 7th grade?) in the Hyderabad house. There was one I particularly treasured, written in a "how things work" style in two volumes -- all the physics I would learn at school shortly after, but so much deeper and motivated. Then there was a book on Euclidean geometry (I think that was the first time I learned the word "Euclidean"), with delightful observations at a level of detail and comprehensiveness I didn't think was possible in the adult world. And another one with household experiments on mechanics and optics -- I remember entertaining myself many days that summer trying them out. It was always slightly surprising that they worked. I also found some British science books, but they were much drier than the Russian ones: tedious lists of proofs and exercises.

In contrast, I was puzzled by all of the Russian fiction and poetry I came across, which I think was restricted to some Dostoevsky and a collection of Pushkin. They were incomprehensible, and not in the same way that English literature that I didn't understand was. In the latter case, at least I glimpsed that something might be considered good even if I didn't know why.

I remember that I had some Russian picture books earlier when I first started reading (they were abundant in book sales at the time). Lots of Tsars and characters named Ivan. There was one story where the mother tells her child that if she was good, she'd buy her a kerchief. I assumed it referred to handkerchiefs, and thought it was a sad reward -- handkerchiefs were the most utilitarian objects, and I guessed they were cheap because you could buy them from vendors on the street in packs of 3. It made me wonder if Russia was terribly poor.



I remember my father hated slow motion replays in baseball broadcasts. The call was the call. On the other hand, he thought Bob Feller was robbed on the pickoff play, based on the photos. He was right.



I remember thinking that the word shin referred to the calf.  I think I remember reading about them in The Games, which was the book that got me into running.  I was disappointed a year or two later when I found out that the beautiful, elegant shape of the back of the lower leg was called by such an ugly word.  Calf!  And the shin was just some uninteresting cylindrical flatness connecting inelegant knee with inelegant ankle.

I remember, too, my surprise (much younger!) at learning that the little hand pointed out the hour and the big hand the minute.  That just seemed wrong, since an hour was so much longer than a minute.



I remember the drawer in the pantry for extension cords.  They lay there like coiled, sleeping snakes, able to do wonders but somnolent now.  Unlike other tools in the nearby drawers -- the light bulbs or nails or screws, my father called upon them for temporary tasks -- plugging in a radio or a movie projector or a light.  Afterwards he'd return them to the drawer.  So the extension cords seemed alive in a way that the other things didn't.  They were allies my father could call on when he wanted to do something specific.  They contributed to his intentions, which meant in some way that they had to understand and share them.  There was no malevolence in them, because they were indifferent to me. But their indifference wasn't inert: it wasn't that they were just wire and insulation and metal.  It was that they were incurious about me, since I wasn't the one about to use them for anything.



I remember that Babe Ruth's home run total went up when they reinterpreted the rules.  It used to be that a bases-loaded home run in a tie game in the bottom of the 9th counted as a single, since you only needed a single to advance a runner home.  As soon as the runners touched the next bases the game was over.  But then (I think after he retired) they decided that a home run was a home run, and the Babe had hit enough walk-offs that he went from below to above 700.  At least that's what my father told me when I was a kid.



I remember that I first learned that grapes were trod into grape juice to make wine from an I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy gets herself into a situation where she's wearing a kerchief and treading grapes.



I remember how in huge snow storms the snow would fall through the grates into the subway.  I could look over the edge of the platform and see it between the ties of the tracks.  Sometimes, more rarely, it even got onto the platform itself.  There was something comforting about that.  It was as though I was still outside, traveling through the city.  But also immensely protected by having gone underground.  The slush and snow petered out as one went down the steps, sometimes collecting into scuzzy puddles at the bottom, which people tracked a little farther to the token booth and turnstiles, but which were gone once I was on the platform proper.  The other snow, the snow I could see from the platform, was like a vision of snow, like looking at the snow through a window, but the window was just space -- city space which when I looked through the real glass windows of my room was there all around me and was where I was despite the window.  Here in the subway there was no window but I was still in the space the same way, outside but just watching the snow, waiting for the thunder of the train, which would go through the endless black tunnels that could bring one anywhere in that space, any station out of which I'd exit into snow.



I remember that Viva was a client of my father's, briefly.  She gave him a copy of Superstar, which I paged through, vainly looking for salacious scenes.  There was a lot less sex in her memoir than I hoped.  (Same thing with Henry Miller's so-called pornography.)  I remember that I answered the phone one day when she called for my father.  That was the one time I talked to one of Warhol's superstars!



I remember that Perry White, editor of The Daily Planet on Superman, would express consternation by crying, "Great Caesar's ghost!"  I loved that somehow: as though Caesar and Perry White were similar bosses, similar authorities, making his invocation authoritative as well.



I remember Phil Pepe (who just died).  He'd be on the back page of The Daily News, or right after the jump, two or three days a week.  I read him religiously during the season of the Amazins.  And he was all over the World Series victory issue, which I had posted all over the walls of my room.  I guess he was for me what it meant to be a fan.  He wrote for the fans in both ways: we read him, and he also said what we thought, what we hoped, what we wanted.



I remember my father taking me to a Knicks-Bucks playoff game.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took two foul shots near the nail-biting end of the game.  He was a terrible foul-shooter, and even though he'd scored a lot of points he missed them both (I am pretty sure), and the Knicks won!



I remember when there were readers of this blog.  Now it's private in public.  Like one's past life.