years ago, I reorganized my previous bundles, which had been stored in plastic
grocery bags, into neat 9 x 12 envelopes, filed by year in a tupperware box. I
opened a few statements and became quickly absorbed in the transactions, a kind of
biography, a tale told by money exchanged, income acquired and payments made.
Here was the check for the television spot I’d made for the sporting goods
store whose obsessive-compulsive owner’s son (as difficult as his dad) turned out
to be a champion golfer whose budding career in high school I ended up covering
for the sports page at the local newspaper years later. Here was the charge
for the Inn that I booked after connecting online with someone who promised
that he could show me a better time in Fort Lauderdale than I could find in Key West,
a good time that finally ended a year later in another inn on Sanibel Island.
My old address book, a handsome tome still offered by the Metropolitan
Museum, alphabetically tabbed and covered with a reproduction of a Nakamura Hochu
screen, is a rich deposit of personal history. Names in whose syllables lie coiled
the narrative DNA of present and past.
I retreated to Staten Island in the 80s, escaping the madding Manhattan crowd,
and acquiring an agreeably attenuated social life among the natives. I had an
answering machine back then that recorded messages on a standard tape
cassette. I was loathe, or too lazy, to erase anything, so I would just let one run
out its entire capacity before changing it out with another. I sat listening to
them, mesmerized, last winter. Here was the pulse of my life, live and in
person, told in tweets before there was a Twitter. Some near, some far. Family,
friends, business. Some routine, some urgent, others loving, drunken,
promising, sad. There were two deaths announced: my friend Joseph in Walter’s
voice, struggling with composure; my father’s, relayed with my brother’s somber
I was trying to reconstruct my early New York years a couple of years ago, track
my comings and goings, find some semblance of a timeline for a chaotic young
life on the move. It quickly occurred to me that there was a musical score...
Elton John’s dominance at West End Avenue. Cherchez La Femme at the loft.
Haydn in Hannover. Eventually I began looking up Top Forty charts dating back to
the seventies. Although pop hasn’t been the dominant thread in my musical tapestry
since high school, I found that the pop drift at least, the ubiquitous presence
of the chart toppers of any give year, was enough to help me correlate this hook
with that location and identify at least the year, often the season, and sometimes
a vividly registered moment and its address.
The breadcrumbs are there, if you know where to look.