When memories defy interrogation

I first used the term “interrogating memory” in August 2017.

One month earlier, I simultaneously

An unanticipated side effect of these intertwined activities (the book has also become both a search for “identity” and a social history) was the need to subject memories and stories to rigorous analysis and validation; given my post-graduate academic training in biostatistics and epidemiology (with its toolkit of quantitative epistemological methods), this should not have been a surprise.

For example, I had long believed my genetic father was Colombian. My adoptive mother was so convinced of this fact that in the summer before I was born, she went to the library to look for photographs of Colombian children. I have no idea what she actually saw, but she expected me to be much darker-skinned than I actually am[1].

Imagine my surprise (and, yes, disappointment) when genetic testing revealed that I was almost exclusively northern European (British, Irish, French/German, Scandinavian), with less than 1% Iberian (i.e., Spanish or Portuguese) I hoped against hope was the source of my “Colombian” ancestry. But that was only the first iteration of my results. Subsequent algorithm changes readjusted the relative percentages to 64.4% British & Irish, 12.8% French & German, 1.6% Scandinavian, 0.9% Italian and 0.2% North African & Arabian, plus 19.7% Broadly Northwestern European, 0.2% Broadly Southern European and 0.2% Broadly European[2]. What little Spanish ancestry I thought I had vanished with this final recalculation. Moreover, the Native American maternal great-grandparent that was also part of my “adoption story” did not seem to exist either[3].

In other words, rather than being a “walking UN,” I was, like, the whitest white boy ever.

Further research (and my near-certainty about the identity of my genetic father) led me to hypothesize that my mother, when meeting with the lawyer who arranged my adoption, somehow translated the fact my genetic father (unnamed in official court records) “grew up in the District of Columbia” as “he came from [the nation of] Colombia.” Short of my genetic mother flat-out lying about (or not knowing herself) who my genetic father was—and until I ask her directly (yes, I know her identity), this is the best explanation I have.

This is merely one example of a memory—or collection of related memories, or story—I was able to interrogate using available sources of information: public records available on Ancestry.com (Census data, city directories, birth and death certificates) and elsewhere on the internet (Google maps, “White Pages,” obituaries, etc.), the indispensable Newspapers.com and my own personal archives (including e-mails, bank and credit statements, diaries, address books, family documents).

But then are those intense nagging memories that simply defy interrogation.

Below, I present three examples of such memories (to the best of my ability to reproduce in words what I see with my mind’s eye), along with the less-than-fruitful steps I took to interrogate them.

Memory 1: My father and I are in a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged store somewhere in Philadelphia; I THINK it was in a line of stores on a commercial street somewhere to the east of Ridge Avenue just east of the northeastern edge of Fairmount Park. Everything in the store feels dusty and old. Half-empty shelves line the wall, on the right-hand side as you enter from the sidewalk, all the way to the ceiling (I cannot picture the opposite side of the store). There are some counters as well. I am unclear what the store sells—or even why we are there—but I get the impression of adding machines and typewriters. My sense is these were used machines, or possibly repaired, or maybe neither. In the darkened back of the store is an open doorway leading to a back room through which I see light. I do not know why we are there, but I BELIEVE my father and the proprietor of the store—a shorter older man?—went into the back room alone for a brief time; I read and/or fiddled with the machines while I waited. This visit almost certainly occurred between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my father’s death in June 1982.

This memory has been near the forefront of my conscious mind ever since I began writing my book, which (as of now) has four chapters devoted to my film noir “journey[4].” One, which I am tempted to call “Night and the City,” explores the interplay between my life-long love of the night and my suburban mythologizing of “the city.” This “old dark urban store” visit is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about pre-adulthood trips into “the city.”

Growing up in the 1970s in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, “the city” meant two things: 1) Center City, home to most of the historical and cultural attractions and 2) everywhere else, including predominantly-minority and/or less-well-off areas. This was when “law and order” Frank Rizzo (seen here in 1969, when he was Police Commissioner, with a nightstick tucked into his cummerbund) was mayor (1972-80), and the city—like many in the United States—was facing a shrinking tax base and “white flight[5].”

Rizzo NightStick

At this young age, I mentally conflated every section of Philadelphia north, south and west of Center City[6] with the presentation of “inner cities” in popular television shows like Welcome Back Kotter[7], Good Times and What’s Happening!!—and even All in the Family, an inescapable part of the cultural zeitgeist even though I rarely watched it. And like many suburban children, I came to mythologize “the city” as a place simultaneously exciting and dangerous, alluring and repellent[8].

As for this particular store, which I mentally locate in what I have learned is the Allegheny West neighborhood, I have been unable to locate it using Street View in Google Maps or by searching for advertisements for it on Newspapers.com. The 4000 block of Ridge Avenue sort of fits my memory of the store’s exterior, except for the Route 1 expressway bridge looming overhead. What I need, actually, is a set of Philadelphia Yellow Pages for the late 1970s; one of the listed “office supply” or “typewriter repair” shops listed should theoretically match my “mental location.”

Even if I am able locate the store itself, however, I still may never know for certain why my father and I were there—although two possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is where I acquired my beloved portable blue-and-white Olivetti (?) typewriter to replace the battered old Royal typewriter I had been using. While it is hard to imagine such a new typewriter emerging from the musty store of my memory, it does fit with what I remember being IN the store (as well as my father’s penchant for getting “deals”). The timing works as well, since I received that typewriter sometime around the first week of March 1980, when my mother and I moved into a new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley; whether by design or not, the typewriter matched the fresh décor my mother chose: navy, white and silver.

A more sinister possibility is that my father was conducting some less-than-legal business with this man. Following my parents’ separation (and the loss of a family business), my father had a series of temporary positions—salesman for Sylvan Pools, selling roadside signs with removable plastic letters, cab driver (he found some peace and contentment doing this, I think[9]). He was also a bookie for a time[10], and he was deeply in debt to enough people that he would never sit with has back to the door of a restaurant. Perhaps he was collecting payment from, or delivering winnings to, the old man in the back room?

The former explanation is far more likely (would my father really conduct an illegal transaction while he had his 12- or 13-year-old son with him, even in a back room?), but there is a “noir” feel to the latter explanation that appeals to me.

In fact, it is revealing how dark I envision this store being, as though the darkness itself was somehow nefarious. It was daytime (I am almost certain), and perhaps quite sunny, so the store may simply have felt darker by comparison. But the impression of that darkness is something entirely different.

Someday I may figure out why that is.

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

 The late-night drive in search of—something or other (ideally including a previously-unknown-to-me 24-hour eatery)—has been a favorite pastime of mine since the summer of 1984; I have yet to heed the warnings offered here.

But the nature of those drives—wandering down unknown roads for hours until I figure out once again where I am, then find somewhere to stop to eat before driving home—means that I cannot exactly reproduce many of these journeys. That being said, however, I never forget a 24-hour-diner, no matter how much I meandered to get there; that is what makes this particular memory so frustrating. It is conceivable that I had a very poor experience there…but why do I not remember THAT?

What I also remember—assuming I have not conflated this part of the memory with various dreams[11]—is that a) the “road with a number” from which I turned left was Route 202, b) the “road with a number” onto which I turned (forming a three-way intersection) was Route 152, and c) I strongly associate this journey—maybe even this particular intersection—with a female coworker with whom I had become very friendly. She was raised in a Montgomery County town just north of Philadelphia.

I literally clicked my way along the entire stretch of Route 202 on Street View between Norristown and the border with Montgomery County. While I found the intersection with Route 152, it was far too rural to be the one in my memory; no other intersection was even close. As I was writing this, I again looked at Google Maps—and realized I had forgotten about Business Route 202.

And…lo and behold…the intersection with Route 152 north is a three-way intersection whose building layout broadly corresponds to my memory.

But that is as far as I can go. Following Route 152 north into towns like Perkasie and Sellersville, there is no commercial urban corner even close to what I recall. Moreover, I literally searched “24-hour diners” on Google Maps for all of Montgomery County north of Philadelphia—not one of them is the diner of my memory. Finally, I was not able to find any record of such a diner existing on Newspapers.com, even going back to 2002.

There is one possible explanation for the association of the intersection of Business Route 202 and Route 152. At some point during this time period, I spent one Saturday afternoon in the charming Bucks County borough of Doylestown. While I was perusing the shelves of a used book store, literally on Business Route 202, my cell phone rang. It was my work friend wondering what I was doing and whether I wanted to hang out with her that night. It is a near certainty I would have taken Business Route 202 back to my apartment in King of Prussia (which means this diner visit could not have occurred earlier than February 2003). As I think about it, the intersection with Route 152 north is one I could easily see filing under “explore this some Saturday night soon.”

Doylestown book store

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

Memory 3: One night between July 2010 and April 2011, I drove either to a public transit station (likely on the MBTA–or “T”) or to a medical building because a male friend—let’s call him “EH”—needed a ride home. EH emerged from my left as I sat in the driver’s seat of my Honda Accord—perhaps down a ramp or short driveway. Immediately in front of me and to the left is a chain link fence. Rows of triple-deckers are both in front of me (lining the far side of a road intersecting with the road on which I am sitting) and to my right. When EH enters the car, the conversation quickly turns to my frustration with finding a new gig as a health-related data analyst. Having just been working with hospital employees (?), EH suggests I look for such a gig in local hospitals. “They always need biostatisticians!” (or words to that effect). Beyond what the area around the pickup looked like, however, I am at a loss where this was—or why I was picking up EH in the first place. This drive may also be when the idea (now an annual event) of my wife Nell and I watching a film noir on my birthday with EH and his wife was first formulated; the possibility that there was snow on the ground, however, would mitigate against this idea because my birthday is in late September.

I actually called in reinforcements on this one: I wrote to EH and his wife, who were every bit as baffled when, where and why this pickup occurred. The conversation is ongoing.

That said, I can at least pinpoint the “when” with some precision because of the conversation about hospitals hiring biostatisticians[12]. I was laid off from Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership on June 30, 2010, then started at Joslin Diabetes Center on May 11, 2011; those two dates are the absolute earliest and latest this event could have occurred. IF EH and I also discussed watching films noir on my birthday—that tradition began in late September 2010, narrowing the window of time to July, August and early September 2010. Again, that is IF we had that conversation; there may also have been snow on the ground, which would most likely put this event in December 2010, or January to March 2011.

EH and his wife both scoured their e-mails and calendars for further evidence; I searched not only my e-mails, but also my bank and credit card statements, in an attempt to find, say, a gasoline purchase in an atypical station. None of these efforts bore fruit.

I was left literally examining, using Google Maps and Street View, every T station and medical center northwest of Boston—where I am almost certain this event took place. And I thought I had hit pay dirt with the Oak Grove T station in Malden, MA; the view looking south on Washington Street, with the T station to my hard left, the chain link fencing in front of me and to the left, and the triple-deckers in front of and to the right of me almost precisely matches my location memory. However, when my daughters and I drove there one recent night, the area did not quite match my memory; though neither can I rule it out entirely.

Oak Grove 1.JPG

Oak Grove 2.JPG

But here is the thing: I may well be conflating the area around where I picked up EH with what I recall of the houses in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC; during the nine months or so I lived there starting in September 1988, I visited some acquaintances there once.

And this is precisely why interrogating memory, no matter how certain we are of what we recall, is so tricky. Over time, memories decay and become confused with other memories—and even with images recalled from dreams. As an example, I was convinced that I saw my first Charlie Chan movie one afternoon during the summer of 1976. A careful search of television listings in the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, revealed that it was actually at 8 pm. And then the diary I kept in the summer of 1976 told me that on the following afternoon, I watched A Night at the Opera. Despite my eventual near-obsession with these Charlie Chan films, it was the Marx Brothers classic that was most salient at the time, as evidenced by it being recorded in my diary and not the Charlie Chan (and Sherlock Holmes film; it was a double feature). But, later, when I looked back, I mistakenly took the emotional impact of a film I watched the following afternoon to mean that I had watched the film with more current resonance at that time, rather than the night before.

For all that I have been frustrated to this point, though, I will continue to interrogate these memories as best I can. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

[1] OK, she actually said “black” (or maybe even “shvartze?”)  in a furtive whisper. Behold the casual racism of mid-1960s white people—the daughter and son of Jewish immigrants from modern-day Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, no less—who had just moved to the suburbs from West Philadelphia. THAT said, she and my father were no less excited to adopt me.

[2] With 50% confidence, that is. With 90% confidence, I am 13.9% British & Irish, 1.7% French & German, 66.8% Broadly Northwestern European, 15.8% Broadly European and 1.8% Unassigned.

[3] I pieced together the root of this story through e-mail exchanges with a genetic maternal aunt (who herself had been given up for adoption, as had her older sister—to the same family, no less—by my genetic mother’s mother). My maternal grandmother truly believed that her own mother was part Cherokee, likely because of where in Oklahoma she was born, though it was not quite where the Cherokee Nation lived.

[4] These follow chapters that discuss my film noir “journey” and research more generally; my family’s immigration from the Pale of Settlement to (ultimately) West Philadelphia, as well as the lives they led there; my parents’ childhoods, meeting, marriage and eventual move to Havertown with my severely mentally-challenged older sister, their only natural child; the Freemasons and their connection to the lawyer who arranged my adoption; the adoption itself.

[5] To be brutally honest, this included my own parents. My father was raised in West Philadelphia, while my mother grew up in Strawberry Mansion and Overbrook. Following their January 1960 marriage, they lived for four years in Wynnefield, just over the city line from the Main Line township of Lower Merion. In 1964, they moved to a new housing development in the borderline-Main-Line suburb of Havertown.

[6] To the east is the Delaware River and New Jersey

[7] On a trip to Philadelphia last August, I visited Har Nebo Cemetery, where, among other family members, two of my paternal great-grandparents are buried. Looming over that cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia was a large building eerily reminiscent of the Brooklyn school shown in the opening credits of Welcome Back, Kotter.

[8] Moreover, when I consider why I love film noir so much, I realize that what these films gave me—particularly the so-called “classic era” of the 1940s and 1950s—was a completely different version of “the city.” This was a vibrant, middle class city in the era before suburbs as we know them today, the city my grandparents helped to build and in which my parents were raised. Indeed, my maternal grandfather was a Philadelphia police officer between roughly 1935 and 1953 (the exact dates have been hard to pin down), rising to the rank of Detective before serving briefly under the very same Frank Rizzo. The contrast between the older—and to be completely honest, lily-white—city of film noir and the city of my childhood continues to fascinate me.

[9] Making it that much more tragically ironic that he died while on a break from this job. On the evening of June 30, 1982, he was on his way to meet some fellow cabdrivers at Little Pete’s coffee shop for a meal when he suffered a fatal heart attack directly across the street, on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel. He was just 46 years old.

[10] There was a rumor he also sold drugs, but given his disapproval of my mother when she began to smoke marijuana in 1970 (when she was 32, which was thus when I would be allowed to start doing so—event though I smoked my first joint when I was 19, quite ineffectively), that seems highly unlikely.

[11] One, from 1990, involved driving up a similar road with businesses on either side of it before reaching a 24-hour eatery on the left-hand side, complete with curved driveway. A second, from 2005, includes my being in a darkened front room at night. This room is on the second floor of a two-story building. Through a bay window I can see a darkened commercial street corner with a street lamp; there may be a railway tunnel to the right.

[12] I did not yet have my doctorate in epidemiology.

4 thoughts on “When memories defy interrogation

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