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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days

Memories are slippery things that get filed away in so random and opaque a fashion that we often can't remember why we went into the kitchen or what we were supposed to pick up from the market... but we can recall our address from when we were in the 2nd grade, or the smell of the infield at a particular Little League game. 

It's not that some memories are saved and others discarded.  I feel strongly that we hang onto just about every thought, feeling, encounter and experience we ever have.  But the idea of trying to retrieve a particular memory can be a bit daunting... like walking into Fibber McGee's closet; just about everything you've ever crammed in there might fall on your head...  or nothing may come out at all.

But when we involuntarily mine our memories during sleep, we often wake up more than a little shocked at what's hiding in there, and say to ourselves, "I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days". 

Such was my experience the other night.

I went to bed at a reasonable hour and got plenty of sleep.  But around 4:00 AM I woke up to the sound of Jordan scratching at the door to be let out.  This isn't particularly uncommon now that she is an old dog.  But often after letting her 'do her business', I have trouble going back to sleep.

However, this time after I'd let her back in and locked the door, I had a quick glass of water, dove back into bed and fell almost instantly into a comfortable slumber.

When my alarm went off a little over an hour later, I felt like I had to claw my way out of a mile-deep pit to reach the offending noise.  And even after I'd silenced the alarm, I lay there for a few minutes, still more asleep than awake thinking to myself 'So that's who Floyd Patterson is!' 

This was particularly strange since until that moment in time, I couldn't recall ever having ever heard of Floyd Patterson.  But my dream during this short bout of sleep had been all about the name... and the man who owned it.

The dream itself was as vivid as a film.  I was a little boy... no more than six years old.  I was in a supermarket with my mother, and as a teenager bagged our groceries, I stood at the end of the check-out stand people watching and fingering the neat stack of brown paper bags folded there at my eye level.

The dream was filled with the competing smells of the market... of the foods... of ladies perfumes... of cigarette smoke... of the earthy paper bags... and of underlying hint of rotting fruit.  And competing with the smells were the sounds... the tap of shoe heels, the ratchety mechanical ring of the cash registers... the occasional sound of a car horn outside.

Suddenly an enormous man in crisply pressed slacks and an open-necked white shirt passed near us on his way out of the store.  He seemed to know many of the check-out girls and nodded in greeting to a few of the shoppers.  I noticed the man, not because of his size, but because he was black... probably only the second black person I could recall seeing in person. 

Having grown up in an upstate New York village founded by French Huguenots that boasted a population in the mid-4 digits, I hadn't yet picked up any of the racial baggage that most of us acquire as we go through life.  I just found the 'differentness' of his appearance to be fascinating and didn't yet have the social sophistication to glance surreptitiously or to look away when caught staring. 

I stared at this well dressed, smiling black giant who seemed to know everyone... and as he passed us, his eyes met mine and his head dipped just slightly in what could just as easily have been a friendly acknowledgment... as the completion of his stride.

When his broad shoulders had passed through the doors of the market - seeming to nearly touch both sides as he went - my mother turned to me and I flinched involuntarily against what I was sure would be a scolding for staring at a stranger.  But instead she smiled at me and said, "Do you know who that man is?  That was Floyd Patterson.  He's a famous boxer and he used to be the Heavy Weight Champion of the World!"

This struck me as odd since I couldn't recall either of my parents having expressed any interest in boxing.   But I was glad not to have been scolded, and even more pleased to have been so close to someone who my mother seemed to think was famous.  Almost as an afterthought, my mom added "He lives here in New Paltz".  Which struck me as an even more odd thing to say, since nearly everyone in the entire world - except for my grandparents, of course - lived in our little village.

When I woke up with the name Floyd Patterson humming around in my mind, I wondered idly if my dream had been a work of fiction or if this memory was an artifact that had come tumbling out of my crowded mental closet during the night.

On a break at work, I googled Floyd Patterson and, lo and behold, not only had he been a former Heavy Weight Champion of the world... but he had lived most of his adult life in New Paltz, NY, the village where my family lived until I finished 3rd grade.

Later that day when I got home from work, I called up my parents and made chit-chat for a few minutes, wondering if I dared ask them about my dream.  Finally, as my mother was starting to hint that the phone would soon be passed to my father, I blurted out "Mom, I have to ask you something.  I had a strange dream last night and I'm having trouble figuring out if my mind was being creative or if the dream was my sub-conscious mining an actual memory from when I was a kid.

I told her the dream and fully expected her to laugh and tell me what a creative imagination I had.  But instead she was silent for a moment and then said, "You know... that sounds familiar.  I remember being out with someone... it could have been you... and pointing out someone I thought was Floyd Patterson. He was a local celebrity in New Paltz."

So there it was.  A memory I didn't know I even had came tumbling out of wherever memories go, and played a starring role in one of the most vivid dreams I've ever had.  Even now, I can almost smell the market and hear the rhythmic cadence of the check-out girl's pounding on the cash register.

I have no idea why my mental closet occasional disgorges an avalanche of memories and on other occasions stays obstinately locked,  But one day if I ever come into some serious money, I'm going into therapy for a couple of years to find out if this means anything.  After all, 'I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days'.

Posted by David Bogner on August 25, 2009 | Permalink


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I wonder if Floyd Patterson ever dreams about you.

Posted by: Raizy | Aug 25, 2009 4:06:02 PM

Raizy ... I'm guessing no, seeing as he's been dead a couple of years now. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 25, 2009 4:31:04 PM


You have an amazing ability to bring even the simplest story roaring to life in living color.

Posted by: Rachel | Aug 25, 2009 5:07:28 PM

I believe that happens in middle age. I've experienced similar dreams that drag some of my earliest memories up to the surface for some years now. Another thing that triggered early memories was doing writing exercises based on memoirs.

Posted by: Mimi | Aug 25, 2009 5:10:10 PM

How fascinating. I used to come up to the area around New Paltz every summer with the Yeshiva of Staten Island, and I thought the only interesting thing there was what I think was a rattlesnake I almost stepped on while hiking near the Shawangunk and the brickwork on some of the old houses.

Posted by: Barzilai | Aug 25, 2009 5:22:29 PM

My grandfather was a huge fan of boxing so as soon as I read the name I knew who it was about. Just reading about it opened my closet door to a dozen memories.

Wonder if I'll dream about any of them. :)

Posted by: Jack | Aug 25, 2009 5:48:13 PM

There is even a connection between Patterson and Sweden(of blood libel fame). He was very popular in Sweden and married a Swedish woman.

Posted by: ED | Aug 25, 2009 7:05:14 PM

I love this story!

Posted by: Miss Worldwide | Aug 25, 2009 11:51:40 PM

That is so cool. I can't recall having a dream as vivid and true to life as that one, but often in my dreams I'm years younger and with people I haven't seen in a very long time. I remember one time though where I got a shock to the head (long story) and while I was sitting there recovering, I had a rush of memories of me & my brother playing together when we were little... which makes me think I should probably get that closet cleaned out too!

Posted by: Chantal | Aug 26, 2009 3:50:32 AM

The mind is an amazing and wonderful thing. And, David, your mind is amazing, wonderful, and extraordinary in the writing it produces!

My grandfather a"h, one of the gentlest men to have ever lived, loved to watch "the fights", both wrestling and boxing.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 26, 2009 4:51:40 AM

Yeah, yeah, dream, memories, coolness...whatever. But more importantly - you lived in New Paltz? I somehow missed that if you've ever mentioned it before. I went to uni there. Loved the village, hated the uni. Couldn't believe that even in the '80s there were street fights between "the townies" and the college kids.

No seriously - dreams are fascinating. I have extremely vivid, detailed, colourful dreams that make no sense at all. But I've never had a dream that was a real memory. I'd love to be a fly on the wall - or watch the YouTube videos. Whatever. - during your sessions, if ever do scrape up the dough for that therapy!

Posted by: Alissa | Aug 26, 2009 7:32:46 PM

Having grown up in an upstate New York village founded by French Huguenots that boasted a population in the mid-4 digits ...

The "Duzine", whose descendants are more inbred than can possibly be imaged.

Wow. Genesee Cream Ale!

Say, when you were a child, did you know anybody named Meltzer? Maybe your parents did?

How about a philosophy prof named Charleson?

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Aug 27, 2009 12:10:04 AM


Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Aug 27, 2009 3:24:07 AM

New Paltz! Wow! Practically my back yard when I was growing up.

And wow again -- someone else who is familiar with Fibber McGee!

Posted by: Rahel | Aug 27, 2009 1:36:52 PM

"Which struck me as an even more odd thing to say, since nearly everyone in the entire world - except for my grandparents, of course - lived in our little village."

This struck me so funny, as it's so true from the eyes of children like us.... where we lived was where anyone who mattered lived! :) Loved the story.

Wonder where Dad & I were????!!! Hmmmmm....

Posted by: Val | Aug 28, 2009 6:36:37 AM

I like my nice, full closet, actually, and moreso as I get more insomnia in my 45-50's... my wife thinks, of course, I am eccentric to say the least. ;o/

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Aug 31, 2009 9:11:53 AM

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