I don’t know why seemingly insignificant places will forever remind me of a single day, a single moment in time. Especially places I’ve been to a million times over, places I continue to walk by or sit in years after the defining event occurs. It happens with music, as well. A certain song — even part of a certain song — will be this distinct part of the sidewalk I stroll through daily, a park bench where I waited for the bus in the snow, the stoplight at Packard’s Corner, or Prospect Street when I got the phone call I was waiting for while driving at 4:30 on a Friday.
I was just sitting in the alley behind my place of employment. I was thinking about this phenomenon because I met a friend for lunch, and she said — “I’ll walk you to the building. But this time to the front door. That alley is disgusting.” And I got kind of defensive, like “what’s wrong with my alley?” It’s dirty. But I’ve gotten past that and I don’t even notice the piles of trash bags, the double-parked delivery vans, boxes and styrofoam from Radio Shack stacked seven feet high on the sidewalk. It always smells like salmon. Hot salmon. The spread at Fire and Ice features over 50 ingredients, and the loud industrial exhaust fans constantly circulate the smell of hot salmon, even in winter. And that smell reminds me of a day last summer when I sat in the alley, on the tiny aluminum ledge of the building, thinking more about the show in Providence I was going to that night than the fact that I might be fired that afternoon. Smoking and smiling in anticipation.
The alley greets me four times a day — 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, 6:00. Why, each time I step in or out, do I think of that singular moment of mixed anxiety and bliss? The details remain: impossible summer heat, brand new camel brown Camper sneakers, a sunburned nose, my long dark hair blown in my face by salmon industrial fans, the excitement in the pit of my stomach that no matter how bad the day was turning out, the night would be unforgettable.
And Grendel’s Den, which I was also thinking of distractedly — I sat in those wooden booths hundreds of times, ordering $2 apps during happy hour. But the one tiny moment that always surfaces is the night I came in from frigid post-work Harvard Square, fingers numb, face flushed. I sat down at one of the worn knotted wooden tables with its own lamplight, unfurling my waistlength gray polartec scarf, realizing I could never do without the Cambridge winter night. Tomato and fresh mozzarella. They were playing Flamenco guitar. I was waiting for friends, reading Jack Frusciante Has Left the Band for the millionth time, and I carved my name into the table with my navy blue Fleet Bank swiss army knife.
Big fights, first kisses, horrible accidents, life-giving encounters — who knows where those things happen. I only know that if I leave my house as I start my Howie Day mix disc, by the time I hit the third stair down on the Davis T platform he will be telling the story about the cockroaches. And when that disc ends by the time I get off at Charles MGH, Jump Little Children’s “Dancing Virginia” will guide me through the bricked streets of Beacon Hill.
So I’m leaving work soon. Time for sleep which has been a silent stranger to me. I’ll leave through the alley and light a cigarette, which will be finished by the time I hit the swan boats in the Public Gardens. And I will pause at the Park Street clock and pay tribute to a brand new memory there.
And as I approach the cement steps on Broadway where I’ve lived for 1,027 days, I will remember the October night I sat on them in my black wool hoodie with my head covered, ankle-deep in leaves, crying and unable to stop listening to Moby’s Play.
On my way there now.