Strands of Memory

Verrazano Bridge

8:41 AM Tuesday: I am sitting in the Cube drinking an iced coffee: Green Mountain Lake & Lodge blend, with half & half. The taste of this coffee is bringing back associations, random spectral presences that aren’t quite connecting. I have no idea why, but the taste of this coffee reminds me of Brooklyn, and my grandmother’s apartment.

I see windows with keystone arches, laundry on the line and the Verrazano looming over the scene from my bedroom. I remember the glow of vacuum tubes in the TV, blue and orange through the vents in the back of the set. The TV sat on a gold stand that seemed too rickety for it. I remember French doors, glass knobs and a threadbare runner over hardwood floors. I remember grandmother’s diploma and class photo from nursing school, the pole in the closet and more threadbare carpeting. A musty – but very pleasantly so – smell in the bedroom, mingling with the fresh smell of the Narrows. Somehow a box of Ivory laundry detergent plays into the scene. A copy of the NY Times with a photo of Richard Todd – the man who replaced my idol Joe Namath at quarterback for my Jets – celebrating a touchdown throw. Grandmother’s etched-gold Manhattan glass. Planes in the night heading to or from Kennedy, or maybe LaGuardia, and static as they passed over the antenna. And all the lights of the city seemed green and safe.

We’ve returned from somewhere, probably the Museum of Natural History or the Central Park Zoo. I remember driving by the old Brooklyn Gas tanks. I remember the red and white checkerboard pattern at the top of the tanks, and I likely drew them and colored in the squares. There is talk of a gas tank fire, possibly my dad telling of the time he and my mom were stuck on the Jersey Turnpike due to this fire. I’m scared: I don’t like fire, having seen the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Albert burns the church down by leaving a lit pipe in the basement. I’m always afraid our house in Brunswick will get hit by lightning, and all my toys will be lost. And driving into the city in the early ‘80s, the height of the financial crisis in New York, I see burnt out buildings everywhere, and my dad tells me that landlords sometimes burn their own buildings down to get money from insurance companies. I feel unsettled all over again, seeing the scorched shells of buildings and the gentle smell of smoke in the background of these 30 year old memories.

Why are these snippets of memory triggered by the taste of coffee? I was no more than eight when I last stepped foot in that apartment, and certainly not a coffee drinker at the time. This makes no sense. How much is true, and how much is co-opted from multiple experiences, overheard anecdotes and misinterpretations? How much have I imagined or wished for nonexistent narratives to be mine? How much have I invented and re-assigned after the fact?

How strange memory is, and how it presents itself, demanding I revisit and back-fill the story.

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31 comments
  1. writerwendyreid said:

    For me, aroma (not taste) triggers different emotions which are probably tied into forgotten memories. Most of the memories from childhood for me are bad ones, although I know that it wasn’t all terrible. It’s funny how my mind has chosen to hold on to the negative while letting the positive slip away. It’s sad, really.

    • The positive is still there. It’s up to us to do the re-write. (Story of my life here ;))

  2. This was just great! I love “triggers” and they don’t happen often enough as far as I’m concerned. A patient came into our office and smelled like my dad did in the 70’s. Is it Old Spice, Brutt or English Leather? I asked and it was none of those, yet that is all I could ever remember being on the dresser. Whatever it was, it provided me with an afternoon of childhood memories and a headache from sniffing the room trying to make it last.

    • Old Spice, Brutt and English Leather: the Holy Trinity of 70s manhood! I remember ‘em all. Great comment, thanks.

  3. How many of your stories are from your own experiences, and how much is pure fiction Brian?

    • Great question, Hobbs. From the beginning there has always been a strand of autobiography here. But since I’ve started going first-person more and more, especially since the Boston Stories series, unless there is a character (like in “Disconnect”) it’s pretty much been all me.

      • That is interesting…I will be looking for stuff to blackmail you with later. ;)

      • It’s all there for the picking, m’dear. Do your damnedest!

  4. Brian I enjoyed this peek into your memory banks. You set up a mood and I was there. Maybe the Green Lake and Lodge brand has sodium pentathol? Whatever it is keep a drinkin’ !! :)

    • Hah! Honest Abe Blend!

  5. They actually say that smell has the strongest memory associations. Did your grandmother drink coffee? Was the aroma of coffee lingering in her place. Perhaps it was the first place you remember smelling it? Regardless, it’s lovely writing. Extremely visual. I felt as though I was right there with you. And your grandmother.

    • Thanks, dove. That’s probably it: I remember an old-school percolator. I’m really remembering the smell of the lobby now. Coffee, a bit of garbage, gas stoves… And typical New York white-with-black-accents circular tile…

      This page from my FB friend, the brilliant historian Kevin Walsh, shows her building. The Bay Shore…

      http://classic.forgotten-ny.com/SLICES/tilden/tilden.html

  6. It’s amazing the details that come back once you start remembering. The challenge is being able to share them in a way that makes others feel they are there too. You always succeed, Brian. :) I’m jealous.

    • Aww, thanks, J! I’m trying like hell.

  7. Brian, it has been said that taste and smell bring back the strongest memories. Same with me at any rate.
    Your tale of childhood, being triggered by a cup of coffee, sipped in a place far away from these memories, is a wonderful portrait in time.
    Enjoyed this very very much.

    • Hope I was able to take you back to some good as well, m’dear!

  8. Beautiful writing. I enjoyed it very much! :-)

    • Thank you so much! Great to see you here, I really appreciate it.

  9. Rebecca Booth said:

    So beautifully written, a joy to read!

    • awwww, thanks! I really appreciate that, Rebecca.

  10. Hello! I remember a story by Garrison Keillor where he said that the smell of Ajax in the basement reminds him of his first love… ^^ But how much memories can be set off by a certain smell? Who really knows what roads and lanes and side streets our minds will take – meandering yet vivid, a reckoning of time long gone and hopelessly, far away, huh?!

    Hope you’ve a great weekend going! Warm regards from our warm and hot country! ;)

    • Incredible! ;)

  11. Isn’t it amazing what can trigger a memory? Smell is one of the strongest sense memory receptors & often will do this for no good reason. I wonder if the coffee triggered this memory because there was coffee brewing in your grandmother’s kitchen?

    • The brain is a humbling place, innit? That must be it: I know there was an old-school percolator in the apartment. Crazy…

      Awesome to have you here, Benzeknees, thanks!

  12. Dana said:

    OMG you’re killing me, stop it! lol I can smell that apartment because it was my grandmother’s apartment in Queens with 8 O’Clock coffee in a Corningware percolator! And yes the glass door knobs and stained glass windows and stoops and basements. Kitchen curtains floating on each breeze that comes in-it actually hurts because it’s all right there isn’t it? People sitting outside into the evening, some on the stoop some in folding chairs. Guys going by blasting disco from their Caddies and hearing people talking or washing dishes in apartments or houses so close you could touch your neighbor. And then the picture of the Verrazano which I drove over all the time (did you know it takes exactly 2 minutes to cross it? I counted after September 11th!). And going to school at Fort Hamilton. Wonder if we ever passed on the street! I can’t believe that I can conjur up such similar memories. When you spoke of going into to city, I think of early evening when the sky is soft and everything seems quiet and pretty with lines of plane headlights stacked up in the sky, yachts or the QE2 in the harbor … I feel a poem coming on! (sorry, it was hard to stop!) Sense of smell, greatest trigger there is-thank you so much for this trip down memory lane!

    • Um, yeah, my dad is Fort Hamilton Class of ’58. SMALL WORLD.

      And yes! Eight O’Clock!!! We still have our brass-and-wood hand crank grinder, too. LOVE

  13. Dana said:

    Now that I’ve composed myself…I do like the way you wrote this, starting and ending with the coffee and the bits of memories like little snapshots. Really love your writing!

    • You are too awesome, Dana, thank you!

  14. To this day when I smell someone wearing white musk I think of a family friend of ours whom I adored dearly. It makes me think of her oversized blouses, and silver-streaked hair…and I smile.

  15. Y. Westbye said:

    Hi there Brian,
    I stumbled upon your website somehow when I was doing some ancestry research. Mostly because I was doing some research regarding my grandpa who went to Brooklyn in the 1930s when he was around 18. And he of course, is a Westbye. I know it’s a bold shot, but leaving you a reply maybe just in case u know, u might have heard something similar regarding your ancestors. Because the story unfolds that he was a crew member and a sailor and went to Brooklyn, met a girl, had a child and somehow they divorced, and he went back to Norway. So somehow there’s a missing link, and this blog is the closest to “Westbye” and “Brooklyn” that I could find.

    So greetings from a norwegian here with the same last name!:)

    • Hello! E-mail me (greenback.media@gmail.com) and let’s talk…

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