Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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One Block and a Million Miles

It was at the end of the block where I grew up. A one-story building that housed a bowling alley and a small market. That was a quietly wonderful thing – if I saved up a few extra coins, I could walk down the street, rent some shoes, select a dusty, pitted ball off the racks, and bowl a game or two all by myself, without even needing to cross a street. My father taught me how to keep score, and I want you to know that I bowled a 148 game at the age of eleven, a record that still stands in my little world.

But that’s not what I sat down to write about. Frankly, I don’t think about the interior of that building very often. Oh, there was the time I walked down there with my brother Dan on a sunny summer day, when all the money we had between us was a nickel weighing heavily upon my pocket. We surveyed our options in the vending machine just inside the front door. Most of the candy cost a dime, but a scant few items did fall within our budget. After a brief consultation with one another, we made our choice and dropped the nickel through the slot. And there we sat on the front stoop of the bowling alley that day, my little brother and I, sharing a packet of cheese crackers with peanut butter, watching the cars and trucks zoom by on Conner Avenue.

But there I go, digressing again. No, the image that stays with me, the one that comes back at the oddest of times, is the side of the building; specifically, the brick wall at the northwest end, the wall that faced out on the nasty parking lot that always seemed to be strewn with rocks, broken asphalt, and the blackest dirt. It was an enormous advertisement for Coca-Cola, painted directly onto that brick wall. Was there something special about the ad itself? Assuredly not. It was essentially identical to a thousand other signs one could have found in and around Detroit at that time. A red and white Coca-Cola logo on a field of yellow, which was itself surrounded by a solid dark green that covered the rest of the wall all the way to its edges. One thing that never occurred to me at the time, but which may have contributed to my fascination with the sign, was the simple fact that I could walk right up to it, touch it, and examine it on a near-microscopic level.

But I still haven’t gotten to my destination in this essay, the real moment that stays with me. It was a day, I think in the fall, not long before suppertime. I was perhaps 12 years old or so. I walked up the alley from my house, an alley that came to an end on the northeast side of the building, right around the corner from the Coke sign. The sun was low in the sky, very bright and very yellow. As I came around the corner of the building, the sunlight was reflecting off that sign right into my eyes. The effect was staggering. These intense reds, yellows, and greens, all filtered through the grid pattern of the bricks, slightly refracted through the rush hour haze that pulsed from Conner Avenue. That sign had never seemed larger than it did at that moment. It seemed as if it was a blazing altar, or perhaps the gateway to another dimension. I stood there mesmerized, and I thought a series of thoughts that I’d never had before: “You will remember this moment for the rest of your life. You may see other great sights in your life, ones you cannot imagine now, but at this moment, you can feel the limits of your sensory perceptions being pushed upon. You are near the physical limits of your ability to visually perceive. Note this image well, for you may go long and far without seeing its equal.”

You may be tempted to think that I have embellished this story, or you may wonder whether I could have thought the thoughts I have described. Let me say this: if any embellishment has occurred, it was not through any conscious choice on my part. Did I hear a voice in my head actually saying the words I have quoted? No, not at all. My one embellishment here is that I’ve tried to take a series of emotions, and a jolt of intuitive knowledge, and set them to words. So even if the words themselves were not literally real, the facts and the thoughts they convey were entirely real.

The next series of questions is, I think, fairly obvious: What was the truth of that voice? Here we are, over 30 years down the road from that moment. What have I seen since then? Have I seen its equal? Was I truly near the limit of my ability to perceive? If not, what scenic paths have I traveled since then? Those questions deserve well considered answers, and I’m not prepared to tackle them today. Perhaps that will be an essay on another day.

I put this out to you, my good reader, partly in the hope that you may have some early memory of your own that I could cajole you into sharing, something that has stayed with you and informed your senses from that day to this. Even if you haven’t, even if you think that this story makes me some kind of weirdo, let me leave you with this thought: I AM a weirdo, and I wouldn’t have me any other way!

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