The Archaeology of Memory

The streets of Manhattan hold images from my youth.

Posted Jan 31, 2014

On a post-holiday visit to New York, I was walking in the winter darkness with a friend in search of a restaurant when I realized with some surprise that we had wandered into a neighborhood where I had lived years before. With each passing step, more memories materialized in the cold air, until it seemed as if nearly every streetlight illuminated another version of the young woman I had been all those years ago.

Here was the intersection where, as I was crossing the street one Saturday morning, a tall, well-dressed man loomed up between the white lines of the crosswalk and commanded me in a hostile voice: “Smile!”

There, behind a banner of holiday lights, was the neighborhood tavern where I agreed to meet a former boyfriend in the middle of a weekday afternoon. We were sitting at the bar catching up when an oddly familiar tune wafted out of the speakers overhead, and I felt compelled to share my knowledge. “That’s the theme song of the June Taylor Dancers on the Jackie Gleason Show,” I informed my startled companion. He was a bit of a highbrow; if he had set up our meeting with the intention of resurrecting our romance, this piece of trivia perhaps caused him to reconsider his plan.

I lived in that neighborhood during the 1980 transit strike; while gamely trudging to work one morning, I saw in the window of a kitchen supply store a graceful ceramic bowl the precise color of the cloudless blue sky in summer. Heedless of the transportation challenges, I walked in and bought it, and I lugged my treasure all the way to work and back home again that night. It has been with me ever since, through countless moves, and when I see it on my shelf I am briefly propelled back to the happy morning I found it.

In the midst of my pleasant reminiscing with my friend, however, I remembered too a sharp sorrow from those years. Ten blocks north of my old neighborhood was the street corner where, on a cool evening in early spring, I stepped off a bus after work to find a man who had broken my heart and disappeared without explanation standing on the sidewalk looking straight at me, as if he, finally, had something he wanted to say to me.

Inexplicably, instead of walking the few steps north to meet him, I stared, panicked, turned in the opposite direction and crossed the street, heading south. If this had been a movie, he would have followed me. But alas, it was callous reality. When I came to my senses and turned around seconds later, I saw him walking quickly north, already too far away for me to catch up to him. As the wrenching magnitude of my error overwhelmed me, I set off in a different direction: I went straight to a liquor store, bought a bottle of whiskey, took it home to my apartment and had an anesthetizing glass or two over ice with my extremely sympathetic roommate.

I moved to New York all those years ago because I wanted to be a writer; I thought the intoxicating magic of the city—and its presence in the personal histories of so many other writers—would help my craft. I lived there only three years, in three very different neighborhoods, but much of what I experienced then seems preserved in my memory with crystal clarity. All I need is a faint suggestion—a visit to an old haunt, a bowl found on a shelf, the name of a friend from that time—and the scenes begin to flash by one after the other, as if I am watching in my mind reel after reel of the uncut footage of my youth.

Memories of other eras in my life are strong, too; my family and friends are often surprised by what I remember of events in the past—details such as where someone was sitting at a party or what someone else once said to me. But the memories from my New York years stand out in especially sharp focus. Did the city itself imprint those years so decisively on my mind? Or was it simply that I was in my 20s when I lived there, dreamy-eyed about writing and about life, and nearly every encounter seemed weighted with significance, half real and half the stuff of fiction?

My mother lived in New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a time I consider one of the city’s golden eras. She was young then, too, but she never loved it; she saved her urban ardor for San Francisco, a city that she also inhabited as a young woman and that she adored forever after. When I announced my intention of moving to New York, my mother’s comment—after she tried to talk me out of it—was a terse, “New York is a tough town.”

Still, she played an unwitting part in my desire to live there. The few family visits we made to New York when I was a child exposed me to a destination that was intense, lively and so different in every way from our quiet suburban neighborhood that I was enthralled. On one enchanting family trip to Chinatown when I was small, my father, mother, brother and I strolled the crowded sidewalks at night, ducking in and out of small shops, caught up in the festive throng. On another family trip some years later, we had lunch at a midtown restaurant so sophisticated (to my pre-teen eyes, at least) that the entrance was three or four steps down from the sidewalk.

Perhaps it was on this trip that my father negotiated the fierce Manhattan traffic to drive by a tall, imposing apartment complex near the United Nations so my mother could point through the car window and say to her two children, “This is where your mother used to live.” I wonder now if she also saw through the car window a younger version of herself—slim and beautiful, unmarried and childless—hurrying down the sidewalk in her stylish 1940s dress, hat, pumps and gloves, with her whole life ahead of her.

After my evening in my old neighborhood, I said goodbye to my friend at Grand Central Terminal, traversed the two blocks west to Fifth Avenue among the genial Friday night crowds and then proceeded down Fifth Avenue to my hotel. There was a fine, cool mist in the air, and fog was swirling over the roofs of the elegant buildings across the street from Bryant Park and painting blurred halos around the streetlights.

As I passed the New York Public Library, I realized with some relief that I had no youthful memories of this part of town. This left me free to stop and gaze at the misty towers of the buildings in wonder, imagining foggy nights like this in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and half-expecting a young man in a fedora and an overcoat and a young woman in a stylish 1940s coat, hat, pumps and gloves to pass by me, arm in arm and deep in conversation.

The dreams I had when I moved to New York as a young woman did not all come true. But I kept faith with the little girl who had been entranced by a night in Chinatown and the pre-teen who discovered that not all restaurant entrances are found at street level. I lived in New York for a time in my youth, and because of that my memories of the city will always swirl and mix with those of all of its other inhabitants, past and present, real and fictional. At peace now under the soft veil of the evening fog, I continued down the deserted city sidewalk and turned in at the door to my hotel.

Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper

Painting: The Flatiron Building (1903–1905) By Ernest Lawson Via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph: The Empire State Building From Bryant Park (April 2009) By Jonathan71 Via Wikimedia Commons

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