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.
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.
As though we're the mice, haunting the halls of the city.