In the early ‘80s, I regularly took the Southern Crescent from Tuscaloosa down to New Orleans for a weekend or a few days. The price was reasonable, the ride was scenic, and I had places to stay. I was usually on my own on those trips, and it was then that I learned my way around what is still one of my favorite places to be.
Early one summer morning, I hopped on the streetcar at Napoleon heading to the CBD. When the streetcar stopped at Foucher, a poised and well-appointed young woman boarded. She wore a stylish belted summer dress and had a tote slung over one shoulder. She took a seat a couple of rows in front of me. She mostly looked straight ahead, but occasionally she looked out the window at the passing street scene as the breeze gently blew her chestnut hair. I was entranced by her calm and effortless grace and frequently glanced in her direction.
We both got off the streetcar at Canal Street and walked our separate ways. And that was that.
The next day, I was cooling off in the late lamented Maison Blanche flagship store on Canal Street. As I passed the fragrance counter, I spotted my streetcar crush, tester aloft, sampling fragrances with a customer. She had the same relaxed and focused grace as on the previous day. I watched for a moment and considered possible conversation starters.
Then I moved on and the young woman became a memory.
That memory has been nurtured for forty years now. Back then, I used it as the start of a short story that never found its end; it might be stored away in some box in a closet somewhere. I’ll never know how accurate the memory is to the actual event.
But I have been thinking about memory lately and a lot.
I finally saw Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, a couple of days ago. I always enjoy that audacious Spanish director’s work and was anxious to see this frankly autobiographical film from a master who is entering his 70s.
Almodovar is the force who launched the careers of the young Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, among others. Both Banderas and Cruz have rejoined their mentor and play pivotal roles in this latest film. Banderas is the main character, Salvador, and Cruz is his mother, Jacinta. Cruz is radiant, but it is the aging Banderas who mesmerizes with his stooped gait and desperate gaze.
In an early scene of memory, the village women of Salvador’s childhood wash the laundry in a creek bed. As they finish the wash, they break into jubilant song as they drape the laundry over the bushes to dry. The film shifts from such beautiful memory to scenes of the aging Salvador in a heroin stupor, trying to find relief from his pain, … trying to find release.
Almodovar explores the challenges of an artist who might have passed his peak and celebrates the memories that nurture him in his emotional ebb and flow. These memories inspire the artist and, in a quietly triumphant finale, bring his artistic energy back to life.
In a recent interview, author Haruki Murakami speaks of memory.
When I was in high school, I passed a girl in the hallway, a girl whose name I didn’t know, who was clutching a copy of “With the Beatles” to her as if it were something precious. That scene was etched in my mind and became a symbol, for me, of adolescence. Sometimes scraps of memory like that can be the trigger that brings a story into being.
“Symbols,” Murakami says, “don’t age, aren’t full of contradictions, and probably don’t disappoint anyone.”
At the 2020 Academy Awards, when Bong Joon Ho received the Best Director award for Parasite, he quoted Martin Scorsese: “The most personal is the most creative.”
It is such personal memory that provides sustenance in the bleak periods of the soul. It is memory that makes this life bearable when the inevitable setbacks occur. The young woman on the streetcar is probably about the same age as me now. I wonder what became of her. Where is she now? I hope she has had a good life to this point.
And I wonder what memories inspire her.