A certain new, wifi-less café is situated across the street from a certain longtime dry cleaner in my neighborhood. I know this because I went to the dry cleaner to deal belatedly with some food-stained sweaters, and noticed the relative proximity as I made my approach by foot. I knew the café was somewhere around there, but had not yet connected that the two businesses were so close to one another. Needing to next head to a café to accomplish some work, I decided on this nearby one, despite having never entered it before, rather than my regular café, which is several blocks further down the road.
I made this decision while the dry cleaner’s proprietor, wearing his standard short white gloves of the thinnest imaginable cotton fabric, registered my drop-off by ticking away at his countertop touchscreen computer with the eraser of a long yellow pencil that has never been, and will never be, anywhere near a pencil sharpener. The tick of his touchscreen has a specific sound, a tight punch of a signal, that I associate solely with this dry cleaner. I do not visit the dry cleaner often, but when I do, I look forward to the touchscreen tick just as much as I do to the idea that my sweaters might soon have fewer spots on them.
Having deposited the sweaters and retrieved a yellow receipt so bright in color that it is impossible to lose in even the most overburdened wallet, I headed to the new café for two reasons: I had been meaning to check it out, and walking the additional handful or so of blocks to my regular café felt more like procrastination than exercise. As it turned out, the new café’s strident lack of Internet connectivity helped nudge me along during the current stage of a particular project, and I will almost certainly return there in the near future, even if all my sweaters are clean.
Next time I need to go to the café, I will know exactly where it is, just as I know that another café that I frequent is across the street — one block closer to the Pacific ocean — from a dim sum place I eat lunch at frequently, and just as I know that a favorite Vietnamese restaurant is on the same block as the movie theater that is closest to my home. I could not tell you the cross streets of any of these businesses, but I know where they all are in relation to each other. That is how memories are cemented. At least that is how my brain makes memories, through context, correlation, proximity.
And through incidence. There are different types of proximity, and though the word suggests physical nearness, there is also simply chance incident. On the way to the dim sum restaurant, there is a spot where I think about feathers, because a dead bird was left there for several weeks, and for weeks after its carcass had disappeared, individual feathers fluttered in the bushes and grass.
Key for my memory is sound, certain parallels between physical places and the sounds that I associate with them.
I do not think of alarms when I walk past the neighborhood fire station, but I do think about the crying in a nursery ward. This is because of a sign on the firehouse door that announces the place as a safe haven for unwanted newborns. The sign shows a child sleeping in a pair of hands, yet I cannot walk by that firehouse without the helpless calls of infants ringing in my mind’s ears.
There is a stretch of road between Pasadena and Glendale where I will always hear the rhythmic threadbare minimal techno of Monolake’s album Cinemascope, even if Led Zeppelin is blasting on the radio,even if I am deep in conversation on the phone or with a fellow passenger, even if the windows are open and letting in the sirens of passing police cars, all of which has happened. More than a decade ago, on a visit to the Los Angeles area, I blasted a CD of that album in a rental car after a long day of meetings, on my way to visit a friend across town, and though I have never again sat in that particular car, and I have long since parted ways with that employer, and my physical copy of the Monolake album is buried in a box in my closet, the music still hovers on the highway, waiting for me to trigger it simply by driving through it.
And I cannot step into a particular corner of my home’s small backyard without having the novelist China Miéville tell me a story — more specifically, tell me a particular part of a story. For at some point, many years ago, I struggled in that spot with a heavy ration of weeds, and while I pulled at the weeds, tried to separate them from the ground without leaving their crepuscular roots intact, a recording of Miéville reading from one of his stories played through the headphones attached to my MP3 player. I was fixed in that spot long enough for the story to take root. It is as if the story lingers there, set on a loop on an invisible jukebox, and I can access it if I get just inside a specific zone of the yard.