The Art of Memory

The building sat mid-block on the east side of Van Damme Street wedged between a taxi garage and an indoor ice rink and diagonally across from the Queensboro Correctional Facility. I climbed the steps to the entrance, grasped the dented brass handle and leaned my weight into its heavy, metal door. My bare arm stuck momentarily to its oily layer of cobalt paint while I contemplated its incongruity with the edifice's bare, cinder block façade. At the center of the door at eyeline was a small, rectangular window sandwiching crisscrossed metal wires between two thin panes of glass. Past this interweaving of filaments appeared a room, whose hive-like activity resembled a video on that glass surface, its dimensions inadvertently mimicking the aspect ratio of a current day smart phone. At the same moment I was reminded by this fenestral fortification that the city, since I had arrived thirty years before, was safer albeit profoundly less interesting, and I was forced once again to acknowledge my resentment toward those recent suburban transplants who had quietly crept up on us in the aftermath of that monstruous and unforeseen attack of the early millennium and who had no need for my generation's paranoia about crime nor the mundane drone of anxiety that infused our every transaction.

If the weather was fine, I'd walk the twenty blocks from Sunnyside Gardens where I lived, heading west on Forty-Eighth Avenue, avoiding the traffic that raced down Queens Boulevard. Otherwise, I'd climb the stairs to the Forty-Sixth Street station where the number seven train runs, antecedently huddling underground at its origin in Flushing, then ascending the tracks to run swift and high above Roosevelt Avenue, past Willet's Point where the Mets play, and over the roofs of the bodegas and taquerias and Indian sweet shops that line the streets of Corona and Jackson Heights. At Forty-Ninth Street it turned sharply toward Queensboro Plaza to the west, before turning again, this time south, ducking underground once more at the approach to the Hunter's Point station before burrowing deep underneath the East River and reaching its terminus on Manhattan's far West Side.

The previous evening had been unusually crisp, and on this June morning I stepped outside into a cold drizzle. I approached the elevated tracks where I observed the preceding station and the coming train which had just departed. I raced up the stairs, swiped my fare card and made it inside seconds before the doors closed. I was immediately transfixed by a woman sitting across from me on an otherwise empty bench. Her copious amounts of dark hair were bound in a lurex tie which triggered a hazy layer of memory from adolescence that as much as I strained to focus, wouldn't fully emerge. The breaking motion of the train as it slowed between stations cut my reverie short and a few feet before Fortieth Street, it came to a complete halt, interior lights flickering before going dark. In the meantime, the rain had begun to fall in torrents, making a racket on the steel car and cascading through the tracks onto the streets below. When the doors opened at Thirty-Third Street, I was swept into a vortex of high school students which bottlenecked at the stairs, picked up speed upon descent and fishtailed wildly as it hit the street. The deluge ceased as suddenly as it had begun and the wind drove the storm clouds across the river. They hovered silently over Midtown like a bruise. A sticky-sweet fragrance hung in the air as I passed a flowering linden, whose blossoms, whipped by the storm, lay crushed underfoot on the ground.

On the other side of the blue door lies a temple to the discarded. Up front, housewares and electronics, heedless of their own obsolescence, lie worse for wear on dirty shelves—analogue television sets, vintage Polaroid cameras their lenses contused, tangles of companionless adaptors, an old Gameboy, its screen cracked and game cartridges scattered. At the center of the room, rows of plastic bins in a shade of blue replicating the color of the of the front door overflowed with unsorted clothing—men's, women's, children's, small, medium and large, indiscriminate in color or style. Before the dealers and crowds caught on one could spend hours meditatively sorting through the mountains of goods, starting with the picked-over bins at the back while avoiding the mob that congregated at the side door where shoppers every so often came to fisticuffs when the fresh bins were rolled out.

I grabbed a shopping cart and headed toward the back wall sidestepping a boy who sat immersed in play with some toy cars. He ignored his mother who called for him in Spanish. I pulled up alongside a bin and felt a luxurious softness when I reached beneath the surface. A flash of color appeared in my mind's eye that I could taste in the most profoundly visceral way. It resembled the shade of malted milk, and in my hand, I felt the spongy resistance of the thickly cabled cashmere it was made of. I shut my eyes and inhaled its faintly animal scent, but I sensed something else, something hard to place—which also lingered. The smells and textures and the white noise of activity that echoed off the walls swept in visions which passed in front of me, welling up through the blurred edges of my consciousness. At times they're accompanied by sounds—of a phone ringing or faraway music or voices. I can perceive the intensity of a person's pain or happiness and the emotionality of the conveyance would exhaust me.

Soon, a form began to emerge. A woman, perhaps seventy, thin and frail, lay in a hospital bed connected to catheters, and across from her, a man of a similar age leaned forward in a chair, elbows propped on thighs, face in hands. A loud whisper announced a name—Diana—and I saw synesthetic fog of pale green rise toward the ceiling as if it were a substantiation of her essence. I intuited that the man, in his grief, after having kept a keepsake or two, had unburdened himself of the rest of her belongings in an urgent search for closure. I carefully placed the sweater in my cart and moved on.

At the next bin, I sorted through piles of menswear that my own father might have worn decades ago: somber, plaid raincoats with removable plush linings and hand-stitched satin tags bearing the names of the men's stores that once lined the main streets of Cleveland or Detroit or Buffalo, smarting with the palpable sense of decay that those once vital cities evoked. For those of us raised amid their demise remained the ever-present fog of the past and its eternal imprint—one still choked on the sour taste of it. In the crumpled piles of Houndstooth-patterned sports jackets lingered the specter of the two-pack-a-day odor that trailed my father throughout the house and the smoke that seeped from beneath the basement door whenever he sat alone in the dark, blissfully wreathed in the sounds of his record collection: Revolver, Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon, and less frequently, the piano pieces of Satie or Debussy or Messiaen—his taste in music belying his outwardly conservative mien.

I rummaged through graphic tees and company-issued work shirts in navy and red, corporate logos on the back and the first names of the working men who wore them embroidered in script on the breast pockets. Pushing them aside, I saw a pair of man's hands gripping a steering wheel against a dimly-lit dashboard, the car's headlights slicing the darkness on an empty desert highway. I tossed a dirty stuffed animal aside and uncovered a Harris Tweed jacket in perfect condition, save its woven leather buttons, either missing or unwound. I tasted the salt air and the windy desolation of the Hebridean islands of its origin, they being the land of my paternal ancestors, whose diaspora had ostensibly adopted a transient nature due to the concurrence of their utter isolation and convenient proximity to water.

I encountered plenty of near misses in my searches, like an Italian-made pencil skirt, a hole near the hem just too obvious, and next to it, an evening jacket of ivory silk crepe, its satin collar stained with rust. In the left corner of my visual field, I saw a woman wearing the same jacket and exiting what appeared to be a hotel room of considerable opulence. Her bobbed hair gave the appearance of fire and the weight of her despair pressed heavily on me as she closed a rococo style door behind her. Next to the jacket lay a pink cashmere suit stamped with the tag of an obscure French couturier, cut far too narrowly for my athletic build. It was in pristine condition so I bought it anyway and hung it in my closet if only to own it for a while. These were clothes draped, cut and sewn with a certain female prototype in mind: women slender as giraffes who lunched on proverbial dressing-less salads at classic Midtown boîtes, fortifying themselves for shopping and perhaps a matinée. With the naïvité of a teenager, I'd gaze admiringly at them as they promenaded up and down Fifth Avenue from my job on the sales floor at Saks—women well into middle age, though hardly invisible, owing to their impeccable wardrobes and chic coiffures. They'd glide coolly through the lobbies of Bergdorf's or Saks like they were floating on air, wrapped in the plush thickets of their full-length furs and leaving a tantalizing aura of fragrance in their wake as if to remind you of how very different from you they were. I imagined them with a mix of awe and admiration, likely suffering through their husbands' indiscretions as my own mother had done as a price for their privilege, and hoped that through their indignities they'd evened the score by indulging in a few dalliances of their own. Now they're vanished along with the automats and Times Square peep palaces, though you may occasionally observe them presently among the thick crowds of Uptown tourists, walking with the help of a cane now, a fading apparition from the past. I walked up to the cashier, paid for the sweater and deposited it in a plastic grocery bag I had brought from home.

According to science, the human body is not a closed dynamic system—the energy it contains cannot be created or destroyed. I believe that the things people leave behind after death are animate in a way one can't fully understand, but if you paid enough attention, their complexities became apparent. As I stepped outside the rain had passed and across the river the sun set the skyscrapers ablaze like molten stalagmites. Still damp with rain, the sidewalk exhaled a nearly impalpable steam that commingled with the sharp, green scent of petrichor. I luxuriated in the heat of the long walk home.

Helene Macaulay is an actor, writer, photographer and filmmaker living in the American Rust Belt. Her writing has appeared in LEON Literary Review, Grattan Street Press, Commonline Journal and other publications. Her films have been broadcast on PBS affiliates throughout the Northeastern United States and her photography has been exhibited internationally including the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Her acting credits include numerous films on the festival circuit as well as appearances on network and cable television and nationally syndicated radio.