Roving thoughts and provocations

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Memory Traps

Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos
Frankfurt, Germany, 1946

Henry James called them “traps to memory” in The American Scene, the book he wrote about his visit to the United States in 1904 after a twenty-year absence. Walking on West Fourteenth Street and Lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, he shuddered at how much the neighborhood had changed. His parental home, the massive stone church that stood nearby, the old building that housed the original Metropolitan Museum of Art, and much else in the city had now “vanished as utterly as the Assyrian Empire.” What remained were these “traps” which “baited themselves with the cheese of association,” and into which anyone who had once known the city might fall.

It doesn’t take much. A deserted street at dusk, with the summer sunlight lingering on the upper floors of a row of buildings and the sidewalks down below already deep in shadow, may get some old movie in our heads rolling again. Since we are ordinarily better at forgetting than remembering, it is often a mystery why some such sight has stamped itself on our memory, when countless others that ought to have far greater meaning can hardly be said to exist for us anymore. It makes me suspect that a richer and less predictable account of our lives would eschew chronology and any attempt to fit a lifetime into a coherent narrative and instead be made up of a series of fragments, spur-of-the-moment reminiscences occasioned by whatever gets our imagination working.

For instance, just recently in New York, I walked past a store selling cheap jewelry where fifty years ago, I realized, there had been an Italian restaurant. To my surprise I recalled what happened to me there one evening. I was dining with a woman I was wooing, we were sipping wine and flirting, when I bit into a stale breadstick and broke what felt like my front tooth. Without a word of explanation, I mumbled some excuse and rushed off to the bathroom to take a look inside my mouth. To my horror, I found a hole where my tooth had been just moments before and the missing piece dangling at the end on my tongue. I had no idea what to do next: go back to our table and try to talk with my mouth just barely open, or confess what had happened and let my date see the gap and risk her laughter and her revulsion? Since it turned out that she couldn’t understand a word I was saying, I opened my mouth and told her the truth. She suppressed her shock, told me tenderly and reassuringly that it didn’t even show, and then, unable to hold back any longer, cackled out so loudly that the people at other tables turned around with puzzled expressions to look at us. No wonder I’ve never wanted to think about that night again.

I believe it was Aristotle who said that memory—which he regarded as a collection of mental pictures with a time element added to each of them—belongs to the same part of the soul as the imagination. That may explain why we can never be sure how much of what we remember is true and how much of it is made up. Nevertheless, the kind of experiences Henry James describes concern a sudden eruption of long buried memories on which there is no time to do any retouching. Just this fall, riding in a cab down Park Avenue toward Grand Central Station, I caught sight of a building where, I now happened to remember, an early model Xerox machine with slow-turning rollers tore up my baptismal certificate into many small pieces when I tried to make a copy. I was working the graveyard shift in a bank; it was summer and almost daylight and while my co-workers lay sprawled over their desk snoozing, I swept into the trash the minced remains of the hand-written document issued in May of 1938 and signed by a priest in St. Mark’s Church in Belgrade, which my mother carried sewn with other important papers into the lining of her overcoat as we crossed several borders, some of them legally and some not. I don’t know if, after its destruction, she ever asked if she could look at it and what lies I might have told her. As for me, had I not seen that building this fall, I would never have thought of it again.

Buildings are famous memory traps. This summer I walked past a tenement where I lived with my wife for a couple of years in the 1960s and remembered something odd about that building. We had a fire alarm almost every day, except there wasn’t really a fire, nor was it a totally false alarm. Some days one could smell smoke in the hallways, but then, mysteriously, nothing would happen. Being on the second floor with a fire escape outside our window, we didn’t worry much. When we heard fire engines, we’d poke our heads out and watch. The firemen would run into our building dragging a long black hose and we’d go back to whatever we were doing, cooking dinner or making love. The landlord had hired an arsonist, the rumor went, to set us on fire and collect insurance, but he was a bungler. We ran into the landlord from time to time and he did look like a shifty character capable of doing us harm, though one could tell that he had the very same opinion of his tenants. With five or six radios simultaneously playing at high volume and children screaming and grownups arguing, we learned to tune out most of what went around us until it couldn’t be ignored. Once we had a large dinner party evacuate to the fire escape carrying bottles and wine glasses. Another time, my wife and I were in a tub on a hot July night drinking gin and tonics when the alarm sounded. We didn’t budge. We figured we were safe in the water. The other day I sniffed around the entrance, smelled no smoke and saw no familiar names on the mailboxes. Everything looked pretty much as it did then, except older and shabbier and, unlike years ago, as quiet as a tomb.

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