Felix as Proust

by Joan Frank 

One typical, sunny Saturday, I slipped into my local community co-op for fresh produce and supplies.

This store, run by idealistic kids with pale, sweet faces and blue or chartreuse hair and many decorative piercings and tattoos, had declared Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday to be Senior Discount days. For the occasion I carried my little Senior Discount card in my wallet. Loaded up with the usual complement of fruit, vitamins, popcorn, salad dressing, almonds, Sleepytime tea and wheat bagels, I cheerfully dumped the entire lot before the cashier, a pleasant-faced man with glasses and a long silver ponytail.

“Would you like to see my Senior Discount card?”

I make a show of offering it—evidence of my lawful cooperativeness and existential courage. Though the clerk can always check my driver’s license, my face, I am ruefully certain, fully conveys the fact that I’m not cheating.

(Let me clarify. It's good to be alive.)

The clerk smiled, leaned back against the register, and folded his arms.

“Sing me the theme song from Felix the Cat,” he said.

I stared at him.

In less than a fraction of a second I watched the inside of my own mind make a series of racing connections—like runways of lights instantly setting off one another, a city coming ablaze at night. Those lights found their way, in a beat, back to the raw mini-burb of Sunnyslope, Arizona, and the living room of a tiny tract home—to the Hoffman television in its corner, its thick yellowish screen a strange, hexagonal shape. There my little sister and I would sit transfixed by Saturday morning cartoons, eating bowls of Cocoa Puffs alongside our bright-eyed Boston terrier, Frisky, whose tags jangled like Christmas bells when he ran.

With no preface or introduction, and (most interestingly) no sense of exertion, my brain completed a journey of over 50 years (100 years, round-trip). Out of my mouth, with no conscious bidding, came the tune and the words—intact, as though I’d just watched the kiddie show that morning:

Felix the Cat

The wonderful, wonderful cat

Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks

Felix the Cat

The wonderful, wonderful cat

You’ll laugh so much your sides will ache, your heart will go pitter-pat

Watchin’ Felix, the wonderful cat.

As I sang, the ridiculous image flooded my vision with perfect clarity: the goggle-eyed, skinny-limbed black feline, relishing his position at the center of a white spotlight, holding his small pot belly as it bounced with shameless laughter.

I finished the song, staring helplessly at the cashier. I must have resembled a fairy tale character whose mouth has just spat a brood of fuzzy, peeping yellow chicks.

The cashier smiled again, said nothing more, and calmly began to check my groceries, visibly pleased with himself. Case closed.

I watched him, still speechless. I couldn’t begin to explain to him (or to myself) how stunned I was by what had just happened: how human neurons had lit their way to details buried beneath a lifetime’s experience—the fused layers, decade upon decade, of culture and fad, of technical wizardry besting technical wizardry. In our Felix-watching years, manual typewriters, rotary telephones and drive-in movies held sway. Think of the data absorbed since then by an adult woman—compressed into the cerebral equivalent of a hard drive.

What’s that boomerang experience worth, in the scheme of anyone’s day? Nothing, on the face of it. Elders may scoff. Old news, they’ll snort: what’s the big deal? But my generation heeds a gently self-mocking saying: when it happens to you, it is news. Once you’ve felt that quick, baffling electrical surge of surfaced memory, wonder takes over. My sense was that of hosting a miraculous reflex, kin to a tapped knee prompting the kicked foot.

But what the Felix jingle also brought about (that a kicked foot would not) was the sudden re-inhabiting of the world of my origins—how life looked, felt, smelled, tasted. My handsome, charismatic, professor father, his cello voice; my harried, petite mother scented by Pond's cold cream; the sweetness of morning air, cut grass, tinkling ice, Kool-Aid; the taste and color and soggy pleasure of the damned Cocoa Puffs.

Fear, joy, mystery, meaning—all swam through in the instant of that silly song.

I thanked the clerk, gathered my bags and stepped, blinking, into the morning sun. What else, I thought, is packed away where that jingle was—requiring only a melody, an aroma, an image to click the tumblers and snap open the door? How, as a writer, do I mine more of that—scan the antique shops for a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox or Spin and Marty placemats?

Memory, of course, is a shapeshifting thing. Certainly we have elaborate science to explain that Proustian moment (from the French author’s famous novel, in which the taste of a cookie dipped in tea floods his narrator’s senses with every detail of a suddenly-present past). But I don’t care about the science. As a writer, I’m interested in the exhilarating weirdness of the feeling—shivery, magical, far more powerful than mere déjà vu. Gold for the author's mining.

How much remains? How much else do we know, that we didn’t know we knew—written off as long forgotten?

Joan FrankComment