City Weight

I lived in New York City for a little more than a decade, from a few days before I turned 21 to a little after the birth of my son. Then I moved with my family to a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest, and now I’m about to turn 40.

When I’m home, I don’t think about New York at all. It’s there, as a little pushpin in a mental map, but it doesn’t inform my time chopping down new alders so they don’t block my view of the pond, or continually trimming back the blackberry brambles that threaten to claim the tractor shed.

But now I’m back in the city, for the first time alone, and I’m learning that you can’t shed the weight of memory so easily.

My mind is a severe and particular creature, capable of processing reams of information and just as rapidly discarding it. I write hundreds if not thousands of words each and every day on topics as diverse as molecular gastronomy, ancient warfare and hapless criminals. It’s a constant flow, a river of data that I swim freely in and shake off like a big stupid dog.

How my memory works like this – how I’m able to discard things I’ve learned as soon as I no longer seemingly need them – has been a lifelong mystery. I’m thankful that I can harness it to make a living, but I’m sure that as I age and my faculties diminish, it’s going to turn into a sort of waking nightmare.

I stepped out of the baggage claim at LaGuardia and everything changed.

Immediately, uncontrollably, I felt assaulted by memory. Not in the sense of reverie, in the sense of a factual recollection, but by emotional weight. By the way I felt as a young man, hardening like tender polyps into coral under the pressure of this new city. By singular experiences that I was feeling all over again, returning to the city from other places back when it was my home.

They kept coming as I made my way to the hotel I’d be staying at, every block bringing back unique, intense memories of the times I’d been there before. My mind, which had kept the decade cordoned off and out of reach, was opening the floodgates willy-nilly, letting loose everything it could find that matched where I was. Walking across the 10th St. bridge in Gowanus to band practice once, twice, five or six times before I had to leave the band.

Aided by the oppressive humidity of the early summer air, I felt turgid, slowed by the intense need to both relive these experiences and get through the present day. It continued no matter where I went. I used to work there. I delivered documents to be signed there once. I bought a girl a flimsy backpack, decorated with bright drawings there once. I had lunch with my wife there, three or four times.

I was at dinner with an old friend last night and the conversation turned to the sheer amount of data that modern humans process – orders of magnitude greater than our ancestors just a hundred years ago ever would. We take in so much, so rapidly, that it’s a wonder we can deal with it at all. How do our weak, struggling brains know what is truly meaningful?

I realize that part of living here is accretion, folding those memories tightly around yourself into your identity – making you into “you.” In leaving, I’d sloughed them off. But now I was incapable of not crawling back into my clumsy shell of memory. The agile, unencumbered me from the country was unable to cope with a decade of experience returned so suddenly. Nostalgia colored every block, every building facade.

Last night, on the R train, a security guard with impossible facial scarring, four slashes horizontally across each cheek, viciously symmetrical. And this morning, a young woman on the same train with Band-Aids in the same pattern. Where will this go when I leave? Do I even have room for new memory of this place?

I don’t think I want to be here. I miss my family, true, but more than that I miss my unencumbered self, the self who believed that he was free of the crippling weight of memory. Little did he know that it was waiting here for me to bow beneath it once more.