There are two things about me that might come up in conversation if we talk freely at length. Actually, there are many, many things that might come up if you let me talk, these are just two. The first is that I have a terrible memory of my own past. People tell me stories about myself all the time that are completely new. I’m trying to think of an illustrative example, but no, I can’t remember any. I will never write a memoir, I’m skeptical that anyone could. I have never won an argument about something that happened in the past by bringing up a counter-example. This is an Achilles heel, as anyone who has ever been in a relationship could tell you. The only good that comes from this is that I can reread books over and over again and enjoy them. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t something everyone could do until my wife told me that she’s incapable of ever rereading a book.
I’ve sat at the table with my wife and her siblings and heard them retell the same stories to one another many times. And I’ve wondered if being an only child left me narratively challenged. Having had no one to tell the stories to in the first place, I never formed many of my own. It helps to have a people to create a legend. So many of my experiences were solitary. My childhood exists to me as a series of impressionistic vignettes, occasionally with motion. Colors, qualities of light, smells, gestures… some preserved and recalled through snapshots. Most just on the edge of tangibility, like a half-glimpsed Bonnard. Acrobats in the Ionian Sea standing on each other’s shoulders, a nude woman on top with her arms outstretched facing the shore. A man jumping to his death into the Los Angeles River, seen for a half second from a moving train. A drunk man spending through his savings feeding pigeons on the beach at Atlantic City. Did these things happen? I saw them, but I don’t know that anyone else did. Who’s to say? Which brings us to the second thing.
My parents are both from California, which isn’t notable unless you grew up in a place like Green Bay, Wisconsin in the 1970s and 80s. It’s hard now to remember how much larger the world felt 30 years ago and how much more distinct places felt. Chain stores, the internet, and cheaper airliner tickets have done much to erode the hard fact of geography. 30 years ago, the fact that we went to California once or twice a year (on my grandparents’ dime, I believe) was among the things that set me apart. I hated it. You’d step out of the airport and immediately be hit by the acrid, amber air. Your eyes would burn as they strained to see the flying saucer building at LAX as you whipped past in your grandfather’s Peugeot. (I’m not aware of many other couples who preferred French automobiles. The Peugeot was one of several, there were also Citroens and Renaults in the driveway over the years). Los Angeles was the color that the sea turned broken brown beer bottles. And that’s how I remember the air and light. Cheaply printed snapshots aged to the same palette as my memories.
I loved my Grandparents’ house, not just because there always a new toy on the steamer trunk next to my bed. It was an aesthetic adventure that spoke to the vastness of the world. Many of the objects are iconic in my memory. I studied them endlessly over the years. The fossilized nut. The Chinese vases. The array of egg cups. The telegraph key. The Eames Lounge Chair. My grandfather was an architect of the International School, my grandmother was a modern painter whose work lagged New York art trends by four or five years; and their house reflected that. These things made an enormous impression on me as I rambled around the house alone, exploring and imagining. I absorbed its visual vocabulary just as I learned language; and probably at the same time. As I sit writing these words in my living room in Wisconsin 30 years later, there are echoes and pieces of that house all around me. A painting from my grandmother’s color field abstraction phase hangs over the mantle. The Swedish Lamino chair, where she used to read in the morning, that I’m sitting on. Conversations, bourbon, cigarettes, Trader Joe’s ginger snaps, drives to the beach, to the desert, museums, and occasional cousins from my mom’s side.
And somewhere in among these memories, we went out to eat at Lawry’s The Prime Rib—the original location on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. I can’t recall how old I was or what I ate—though judging from the Wikipedia page, it was probably prime rib and a green salad “prepared tableside by a server who spins a large metal bowl of greens atop a bed of ice.” I remember the light, a display of Lawry’s Seasoning Salt in the entryway, and my grandmother telling me that when my dad was my age he insisted on only eating hamburgers. That they’d once gone to a very well regarded French restaurant where my dad had demeaned the chef by ordering a burger. I thought that was top rate intel considering my dad had attempted to feed me everything from sea urchin to gooey duck by that time. Or did this happen before the gooey duck? It’s not much, but this is the Lawry’s vignette and it floated freely. It might have escaped my memory altogether, except that I married a woman who loves Lawry’s Seasoning Salt the way other people love duct tape (which she also loves). It’s earned its place on our spice rack, but I’ve never used it except to make her eggs. But I love that it’s there because it nails down one of my memories and I have so few.