Memory in the Raw

This essay is about a thousand words.

Just after the poppers shot sticky glitter onto the hardwood floor and the horns (available in two strident tones!) bleated sweet fleeting salutations into the post-midnight air and the noisemakers rattled in response to wrist-shaking whirls, and just after the shouts and the hosannas and the well-lubricated well-wishing to friendly strangers, I spent 2011’s first minutes fully immersed in the Pratt’s New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, grateful to a friend for the tipoff. I traversed Pratt’s open gates, passing the glum-looking guard in his square cage, hearing the sweet toots of botched tunes and vaguely diatonic offerings sounding as beautiful as an elephant giving birth (or I suggested; it was better to conjure comparisons without first-hand reference). I turned a corner and saw…


A contraption defying easy steampunk cliches only a few hundred feet away! I departed our flock and sprinted through the foot-high snow patches, like some dog loosened upon an expansive beach. This spastic run sprang from a concern that there were only a few minutes of steam whistles left. Nobody had informed me how long it went on for. So I had to grab a quick look.

Standing ten feet away from the machine, I marveled at the elbow-like gauges and the grand gusts and the keyboards connected in the distance! Most pleasant was the vaguely preternatural noise, sounding like some alien landscape and keeping me spellbound, lost, completely at one with the experience before me. For this was the sound of a dead time being restored! A kind man reminding humanity of an age that came before iPods and World of Warcraft and…

I realize there is a picture attached to this post. I did not take it. It was snapped by somebody else. I did not consult the photo as I wrote the above paragraphs. It has been provided for your benefit so that you can get some tangential sense of what I experienced, even though I’d like to think that my words will be enough. It has become increasingly clear that words are no longer enough. But my description came entirely from my memory. It may not be entirely accurate. It may be unreliable. But I can tell you that I experienced a great deal of joy writing that paragraph and recalling a series of moments that involved great pleasure. And I hope that some of that ebullience has translated to the reader. I can also report that my memory feels truer than any instrument. On January 1, 2011, at approximately 12:10 AM. I had no camera. I had no cell phone. I had no contraption to memorialize the experience. I had no need to…

“Excuse me,” said some shadowy figure, “do you have a card? I’ve got you on video.”

That’s not precisely what he said. But that is pretty close to what he said.

At first I thought he wanted a Flash card. But I realized that he was referring to a business card. And it hadn’t occurred to me to think of business.

I don’t know who he was. Perhaps he was a starving student. Perhaps he was some yearly regular who needed the cash. Similar to one of those photographers who snaps you at social functions (and not unlike the more aggressive, more impoverished, and more interesting variety you find in Mexico and areas of Southern California) and then hope that you will pay out the dough. You walk away with a “memory.” He walks away with some cash. Capitalism in action.

It wasn’t my bag at all.

I did not want “video” or a “snapshot.” Wasn’t my experience enough? Wasn’t there enough wonder contained before my very eyes?

But the man shook me out of my apparent reverie.

I looked around and discovered that I was in the minority. Of the roughly twenty people around me, I saw a good fifteen holding some form of camera, feeling the overwhelming need to document the steam whistle machine. They had to grab the moment. They needed proof that they’d seen something wonderful. I wondered if some of them would put their cameras down.

Joanne McNeil has written about this phenomenon in relation to numerous cell phone cameras capturing President Obama’s speech at the Inaugural Youth Ball. And while her concerns are rooted in the things we choose not to photograph (a slimmer field in this epoch of sexting and more intrusive paparazzi), I’m wondering more about what separates the person who prefers to remember versus the person who needs to reconcile some memory against the memorialized item. If I’m not operating as a journalist, I’d say that I’d place myself more in the first category in relation to the human experience. This may be a more egoistic position. Because I’m essentially stating, “Photographs? Video? No, I don’t need any of that. You see, I’d rather believe in my admittedly imperfect and abstract recall for the remainder of my natural life.” It feels more dishonest and less human to match up my memory to meet the absolute data contained within a photograph. It is as if I’m filling out a form, never driving above the posted speed limit, or always coloring inside the lines. (Tom Bissell did this to interesting effect in his memoir, The Father of All Things, inventing fabricated moments from a single photograph. Did this get him any closer to knowing the truth?)

Given the choice between risking my imagination or an actual photograph fudging up the truth of what transpired, I’ll take the prospects of forgetfulness and hyperbole. I’m certain that my memory isn’t absolutely correct. But I’m more comfortable and more interested in the idea of people sharing their individual accounts of an event rather than relying upon an absolute photograph intended to sort out the mistakes. Besides, isn’t there truth in what people decide to forget? Isn’t there unexpected insight in what certain souls opt to invent?

Today, when I do something fun (such as the Pratt New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anybody who happens to be in that area of Brooklyn), I’m now in the minority. It has become essential to photograph everything. We’ve only had photographs for about 170 years and we’re more reliant upon the camera to confirm our existence than at any other time in human history. We must have our memory in the raw with an intermediary. Yet it often doesn’t occur to us that existence is sometimes best confirmed by existing.