Tuesday, March 11, 2008


As with most people, the narrative arc of my dreams dissipate shortly after I wake. Confronted with familiar scenes and routines, as well as the world of logic, they crumble to dust as quickly as I try to capture them with my conscious mind. What I can recall tends to be settings rather than stories, but even these elude me. They are made of forgotten memories, imagined scenarios and scenes from movies, television and books, working in concert. Often they recur, creating an atmosphere suffused with comfort and melancholy. Now that I’m solidly within my middle age years and the inevitability of mortality has switched from theory to reality, one such place has become a regular setting. Very small but specific memories from my elementary school days have come to the fore.

I’m in the third or fourth grade and I’m walking to the newly constructed YMCA about eight blocks from our house. I’ve got to get there for swimming lessons or some sort of craft activity. I’m not thinking about the destination, only noticing the details along my route. I leave the quiet confines of the residential neighborhood and turn a corner down the sidewalk along a busier street. The cars go faster, passing through to fancier neighborhoods. I’m not curious about where they’re going, but feel in touch with a bigger world where adults go to work in tall buildings. I imagine myself with a long coat and a briefcase. The sun is warm on me. I reach a corner and wait for the light to change. A car goes by and someone yells my name out the window. I don’t recognize them or the vehicle. I’d forgotten I am wearing a black sweatshirt with my name diagonally across the front of it in white letters.

That’s all I remember. I think that YMCA and the sidewalk route comes back to me regularly because of one simple moment of memorization. One late afternoon when I was leaving the Y to walk home I crossed through the parking lot. Scanning my eyes across the cars, there was a license plate, which, as soon as I saw it, I knew I would remember. It was C53-24A, or, in the parlance of some police or military TV show I watched at the time, “Charlie-five-three, two-four-Arthur.” The perfectly interlocking way in which the descending first pair of numbers align with the ascending second pair struck me as the most durable arrangement possible, while the names bookended and humanized the data.

I’ve had that license number in my mind for over forty years. It’s been a sort of mantra that runs continuously through my life. The lot where the car was parked, as well as the route home on foot have become welcome, reassuring settings in my dreams. I like to think that committing that plate number to memory caused it to bring along the streets, sidewalks and houses that are now called upon to be a backdrop to the fractured narratives that play out in my sleep. Believing so celebrates a small, private action I took as a boy, a memory so apart from the daily comings and goings of family and school, that it too seems like a dream.