Thursday, February 26, 2009

Light in the Attic

Gravity - Josh Joplin Group (mp3)
Rudderless - Lemonheads (mp3)

While over at my mother's house for dinner recently, I was following my 16-month-old whirling dervish as he two-stepped like a drunken penguin down her hallway. I looked up at the entrance to our attic and noticed a light had been left on up there.

Our attic is a place of personal myth and legend, as I suspect attics and basements are for many children. I remember thinking it was a grand privilege to be allowed to go into the attic. I felt special climbing those rickety wooden ladder-steps and pulling myself up into a place that was always 50 degrees colder or warmer than the hallway below. The temperature change made the attic feel supernatural -- certainly ghosts and other creatures caused such climate change -- and having to maneuver around and over the entrance lest you fall to your premature death added a constant sense of risk.

Back in my childhood and teenage years, the attic was so packed you couldn't hardly get to anything. Boxes packed in so tightly that the only way to reach the ones farthest back would be to remove the ones in-between from the attic altogether. Entire undiscovered species of rodentia could have (and probably did) lived comfortably amidst this cardboard and fiberglass city.

Even when I was much shorter, I couldn't stand up in the attic, so going anywhere required crawling on all fours, which made it feel as if I were on reconnaissance in some military exercise. Perhaps the military feel came from the long line of Navy uniforms my father kept hanging on a pole that stretched what seemed 30 feet along the left side of that attic. Because this clothesline sat right near the narrow middle aisle, it was inevitably the focal point for anyone truly hoping to explore the greater mysteries on the darker, sketchier end. Beyond those clothes was increasing darkness and thus an ever-increasing ominous feeling. (Not to mention that if you went up there in July, the deeper in you went, the more likely you could pass out from the overpowering heat before you could reach the exit.)

When I lived there, one trip into the attic virtually guaranteed a week-long obsession over a single box or region. I must have spent several hours a day during one of my junior high summers, going into that attic and carefully investigating every yearbook my mother had tucked away. The ones she saved from her own school years were fascinating, but it was her collection of '70s and '80s books from teaching at Central High and Red Bank that I would study with hunger.

What were those high school students like? Were they all as fucked up as my step-brothers, who failed to make it out of there with a diploma? What made the cute girls cute in 1975? What made the popular guys so popular in 1980? What did happiness look like for a teenager? Was there anything more worth coveting than being captured permanently in a book for all eternity dancing with or standing next to, with arm around the neck of, a beautiful girl?

It was the pictures of couples I studied more than anything else. Why were those two people together? What did she see in him, and he in her, and who the hell on this planet will ever consider being in that kind of picture with my arm around them, or dancing next to me?

Other times I'd explore my father's boxes of military paraphernalia, things I'm absolutely certain he never once looked at once he boxed them up. He liked saving things for the symbolic act of saving them, because he knew they were somehow important enough to keep, but I don't recall him spending much of his life traveling down memory lane. As much as he enjoyed golf, I don't even think he enjoyed golf stories. He was a gardener at heart. You don't garden in the past. You garden for the present and future. Last year's tomato crop ain't worth talking about. Once the seasons change, you box the important memories up, stuff 'em in the attic, and let 'em sit there until you die.

After my brief obsession would end, I'd forget about the attic for a couple of seasons. More boxes would be shoved into all corners. The journey would get more treacherous, and the lighting would reach fewer nooks and crannies. And these changes made going up there again in eight or nine months all the more delicious.

I'm decades older, but I still look up at that entrance every time I walk under it. It still holds sway in me.

As I crawled toward the back of the attic to turn out that light, I passed by several boxes of my things I had yet to take to my house. Magazines I kept over time filled two boxes. Several years' worth of Esquire back when it wasn't trying to be Maxim. Several "Collector's Editions" of LIFE. Two years of Atlantic Monthly. And what kind of male would I be if I hadn't stuck a few Victoria's Secret catalogs and three highly-adored issues of Playboy in-between these other mags?

But the last box... it's exactly the kind of box that makes an attic magical, because no matter how many of these "last boxes" you find, you only find one of them at a time, and you find them when you most need to find them.

To be continued...

"Gravity" is from Useful Music. "Rudderless" is from It's a Shame About Ray. The latter can be found on or iTunes while the former is only on iTunes.

1 comment:

Bob said...

I think we must be in kind of the same mindset right now, because I'm moving all kinds of stuff between rooms and finding forgotten writing, cds, and all kinds of other things I didn't know I had. I look forward to finding out what's in that last box.