A Bernstein moment

One of my favorite bits of writing in a movie comes about midway through Citizen Kane (1941), when the film’s almost faceless viewpoint character -– who is trying to track down the reason plutocrat Charles Foster Kane’s last act on earth was to breathe the word “Rosebud” – interviews Mr. Bernstein, one of Kane’s old employees. Bernstein, played with off-the-cuff brilliance by Everett Sloane, opens the conversation with this:

A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.

This wonderful patch of dialogue, penned by ex-newsman and screenwriter Herman J. Makiewicz (who co-wrote the script with Orson Welles), is both utterly irrelevant (it has nothing to do with Kane) and completely pertinent (the unpredictable workings of memory are, after all, one of the film’s themes). Like Sam Spade’s monologue about the runaway husband in The Maltese Falcon, or Charlie’s conversation with a passer-by at the beginning of Shoot the Piano Player, it’s a reminder that even the most tightly constructed work of fiction needs a bit of air -– a chance for the world to peek in, a grace note creating the sense that the characters have an existence beyond their immediate roles of delivering exposition and advancing the story.

Everybody has these Bernstein moments –- these odd scraps of memory that float to the surface of our consciousness for no reason at all, except perhaps that we like to remember them. One of my favorite Bernstein moments happened over a decade ago, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but it comes back to me at least once a week.

Mississippi Delta mud is something quite extraordinary: a unique element, positioned somewhere on the scale between solid and liquid, that’s as soft as melted marshmallows and as sticky as airplane glue. On my first visit to the city, walking back to my quarters in the rain, I unwarily stepped in an innocuous-looking puddle and found myself sunk to my ankle-bone in Crescent City Gluck that filled every nook and cranny of my sneaker.

There had been rain followed by a couple of days of sun during this J&H Festival, and the racetrack field where the festival was held consisted of a more or less hard under-layer with a semi-solid top layer. Walking anywhere involved a great deal of slipping sideways, or backward, or just plain slipping.

I can’t remember which act was playing that afternoon, but off to the side, in the shade cast by a stall, two lovers were dancing. They looked to be in their mid-20s. I assume they were lovers because they seemed aware of and comfortable with each other in a way that bespoke long intimacy. It was not a grinding, horny kind of dancing, either – it was a kind of modified ballroom dance, adapted for a slippery mud dance floor, with lots of hand holding and switching of positions. Their arms laced and separated; their bodies stayed close without touching; their bare feet moved freely and easily on the unstable ground.

The woman was wearing denim cutoffs, a halter top and a red kerchief in her hair; the man had only his cutoffs and a straw fedora. They were both slender and good-looking, but that’s not why they drew attention. People stared at them because their unshowy but quite skillful dancing created a magic bubble of mutual awareness -– a quiet confidence that they belonged together and therefore always would be together. They were dancing on a field of slippy mud, but Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in formal wear wouldn’t have looked half as elegant.

They were the two best dancers I’ve ever seen, and though we never spoke or even made eye contact, I still think of them often. The memory of their dance is one of my Bernstein moments. It came back to me while I was just watching When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee’s powerful documentary about Katrina and the drowning of this great American city, which made the memory a little more poignant.

2 thoughts on “A Bernstein moment

  1. Scott Stiefel says:

    I call it “magnetic refrigerator poetry memory.”

  2. […] gee, Mr. B May 19, 2009 I’ve already explained the concept of a Bernstein moment. Maybe what occurred to me the other day on the train home should be called a Bradbury […]

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