Pedestrian 26: Pentimento
Broadway, Dreamer's Journals, and Memory Palaces.
On my 30th birthday, I went for a walk.
Starting up on 231st Street in the Bronx, I spent most of my afternoon moving south down Broadway, where I ended my journey at a friend’s painting show in Two Bridges almost 16.5 miles later. I chose Broadway, not just for logistical reasons, but for personal significance. Throughout my time living here, Broadway has become something akin to a memory palace. The road, once thought to be a Native American desire path prior to European settlement, has always caught my attention and bisects many of my favorite Manhattan neighborhoods. I’ve walked Broadway more times than I can count, and yet, it is a street I’ll never tire of traversing. Each time I roam its sidewalks, a memory long thought forgotten comes back to me.
Most of these memories are insignificant, fleeting moments, yet it is those which strike me most. We live in a society that is increasingly documented and recorded, but I’m fascinated with their ability to fall through the cracks. It’s only when these memories return to my attention that I remember I lost track of them in the first place.
Hello, I am Alex Wolfe and this is another edition of Pedestrian: a newsletter for people who like to walk. Thank you Kerri for making this week’s edition possible. If you’d like to support this work, please consider joining the Pedestrian patreon.
In an attempt to keep track of these memories, I’ve turned to Strava – an app I use to track all of my long, long walks. At the press of a button, Strava will record the path of my movement, telling me exactly where I walked, when I walked, the rhythm of my movement, and the duration of my ambulatory travels.
Plug my .gpx data into a reader and you’ll see a thick, bold line appear on a map, and if you zoom closer, you’ll notice a series of clusters – parts of my journey where my route looks like an unraveled ball of yarn. In these moments, I likely deliberated my next move, spoke with a stranger, took a photo, or forgot to hit pause when I stopped inside a business to use the employee restroom. These micro details add flavor to the data, or better yet, an intimacy.
But the data can only tell me so much, and is limited in its ability to paint a perfect picture. It is impossible to capture or remember everything. Instead, a .gpx file is best described as a repository for the imagination – serving as a prompt – which presents a parameter for activity. In other words, the data is an opportunity for unexpected, new experiences.
A.R. Ammons says it best in “A Poem is a Walk.”
[A walk] is unreproducible, as is every poem. Even if you walk exactly the same route each time – as with a sonnet – the events along the route cannot be imagined to be the same from day to day, as the poet’s health, sight, his anticipations, moods, fears, thoughts cannot be the same. There are no two identical sonnets or villanelles.
The French painter Claude Monet was famous for trying to paint the same picture twice despite the odds against him. Starting in 1880 and continuing until his death in 1926, he repeatedly painted the same subjects – cathedrals, his neighbors' haystacks, bridges of London, the Seine – in an attempt to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere. Primarily working outdoors, at different hours of the day, and in various weather and seasons, he was fascinated by how one scene could change so drastically under different lights.
In late January or early February 1892, Monet began his most exhaustive series after traveling to Normandy to visit the Rouen Cathedral. In his rented room (which served as a makeshift studio) he painted the cathedral’s looming facade more than 30 times in various different views. However, painting the cathedral proved to be a challenging task. As Monet wrote, “things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before… In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.”
The pictures gave Monet intense difficulties, which threw him into despair. At night he would often dream of the cathedral’s facade in shades of pink, blue, and yellow. Recognizing the inherent impossibility of making the same painting twice, he embraced the changing nature of his subject matter and later finished the paintings in his studio.
It was not so much the deeply carved Gothic facade that was Monet's subject as it was the atmosphere surrounding the building. In his own words, he said, “to me the motif itself is an insignificant factor. What I want to reproduce is what exists between the motif and me."
The walks I cannot remember prove to be the most thought provoking. Using my .gpx data as a guide, I move through space waiting for lost memories to return. It’s not until the third or fourth mile that a spark ignites inside my head. My surroundings begin to change and the pentimenti, hidden beneath the residue of the streets and building facades, reveals itself to me. It’s as if I’m flipping through the pages of an old dream journal. Was it the smell of cherry blossoms lining the sidewalks or the old man sitting on the stairs of a church?
A certain familiarity returns. In a couple blocks, I’ll walk beside the grocery store with fruits and vegetables painted on the bricks. Down the street is an empty lot sandwiched between two tall buildings. It reminded me of a smile missing a tooth when I first walked these streets. Now, in its place, is a multi-unit condo building and a Dunkin Donuts replaced the laundromat next door. Across the street, a woman sells flowers beneath a tastefully dated storefront sign. You can barely make out the letters nowadays as it was produced decades ago and could use another coat of paint. I stop and take a photo. How did I overlook such beauty the first time I walked this path?
The longer I walk, the more I understand I’m not trying to recreate old memories, but revisit a feeling. This desire has yet to reveal its significance, but you’ve likely felt the same way while visiting an old neighborhood you once called home. Chalk up my pursuits to a fear of amnesia or a fascination with passing time. Whatever it may be, it is between the walk and me.
Until next time,
P.S. This newsletter turned two years old yesterday. Thanks for reading and sticking with me all this time.
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As always, this is Pedestrian, a newsletter telling stories about the people, routines, and connections we make as a result of moving throughout one’s everyday surroundings.