“…a certain ‘diaspora of memory,’ to use writer and critic André Aciman’s expression, the memory that no longer has a single anchor in the native city but unfolds through superimposition of native and foreign lands.”
– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
Awaking before five and flipping your blanket to try and cool down, in hope of getting back to sleep you start tracing routes on another continent – to school, friends’ houses, parks, restaurants, record stores, skate spots, Morumbi, Ikebukuro. Despite the blank spots in your memory’s topography, a few random recall clips appear as your route digresses towards faces, books, views out of certain windows, candy, roasted chicken. These are the traces, and they lead you back to sleep.
Later that same day you retrace the routes along Google Street View and reassess the memory-city. Streets have become longer and wind further to the left, traffic is heavier and there are far more apartment buildings, but the same greens and greys paint the city and much the same advertising signage is at play. Mnemonic seams are reinforced as new ones are ripped open by your inability to find that one friend’s house where you spent so much time or at the sight of shadowy corners now brightly lit.
You cross the city easily in Street View but can only venture as far as the walls and gates, of course. You are cut off from entire internal worlds that appear only faintly in your recollections, and thus your forgetting ebbs and flows against a privately dissolving memory. But you will always remember São Paulo as a city of huge walls and steel gates. There was a continuous sense of being fenced-in there, guarded against the city’s violence and stark inequality. Your inhabiting of the city was delineated by privilege, you know this now even if you did not fully realize it then. So as you move freely along in Street View, you wonder sheepishly, what would it have been like to walk these streets more thoroughly?
But you can pursue this hypothetical only so far against the barrage of details that are culled as you negotiate this forced externalization with offerings of mnemonic internalization. You now recall that your best friend wore Old Spice, the bus driver had one of those wooden-beaded seat covers and might have even smoked cigarettes while driving, the black-and-white stone mosaic sidewalks undulated when seen from the street, how many churrascarias and pizzerias you would pass daily, the white wall on the sloping street where the car radio was stolen had been freshly painted, the side-street where you parked for the flea-market at Praça da República always seemed sinister. These superimpositions of internal and external, native and foreign – these are the retraces.
You move through three mnemonic levels on Street View. The first is your current set of memories of what you did and saw along the routes. The next is a recognition of memories formed and utilized while living there and actually proceeding along these routes (i.e., your then-current knowledge and understanding of the city, the locales you would pass on these routes, neighborhoods where you spent time, places where people you knew lived, various emotional responses to certain urban spaces) – a kind of memory of these memories. The third level is the memories you perhaps formed and at least accessed between living there and now of these routes and surroundings (i.e., a mnemonic gradation between then and now, memories that were altered through social frameworks [especially in conversations with others] about São Paulo after having lived there, even potential false memories you created). And finally there is the forgetting that slices through, mutates, closes in on, and opens back up all of the above mnemonic levels.
São Paulo, city of over 20 million, the 100-mile traffic jam, fern-covered walls topped with broken glass, subtropical concrete covered with pichação graffiti, apartment complex gates guarded with machine guns, purple-flowering jacaranda trees, and smog-choked palms. As you retrace the routes, it is the forgetting you become more conscious of, and you have no idea why you didn’t think of these city routes for so long. You wonder how much this megapixelated clarity can assuage your disbelief at spending so many years in that South American megalopolis so long ago.
Start here, on Rua Mário Ruas Alves, and get on the bus, one of those diesel-guzzling Mercedes beasts from the 70s with the angled sliding windows and São João Batista or something painted along the sides in a flamboyant script, the driver with tanned, grizzled face, slicked-back hair, and a few buttons undone down his shirt, you say “bon dia” to Nelson’s mother the school librarian who always sat right up front, go back about eight or ten seats on the right, the weathered tan vinyl perfect for dozing off in, your head resting against the stiff, blue curtains bleached by the sun and billowing in the exhaust of millions of Volkswagen Kombis and Fuscas, the bus roaring past graffitied walls with the occasional strand of barbed wire, pulling up next to the bakery with the great pãozinhos and the newsstand where you peep some racy magazine covers through the window, to the left across the street is the small futebol field where you were devastated after losing a game with the Argentines José and his brother Fernando (who was such a dramatic and whiny player), the bus turns right down the hill and then a sharp left past the video store where you always wanted to rent Cyborg or My Own Private Idaho, then to pick up Mariana, who spends the entire ride in the seat behind you looking for split ends in her dark wavy hair, then another left at a corner well-known as a site of forced child begging, down past the Swiss school and out towards Chacara Flora where you’d wander around with Devin and Brendan imagining you had stepped straight out of a Dragonlance novel and where Brendan once put an injured bird “out of its misery” on the side of a red dirt road after you had covertly climbed up a water tower for fun, then down to pick up Daniela and her loud-mouth brother who were from Buenos Aires and whose psychiatrist mother had supposedly treated some of the Alive survivors, you once went over her house for a birthday party but only reluctantly because you thought you were invited as a joke, you were in a strange mood after having watched Henry V with Kenneth Branagh but you wound up having a great time doing cannonballs into the pool, and further into that neighborhood to pick up Brian with the big purple mohawk who made you a tape of the Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc. and Plastic Surgery Disasters, which you still have and still admire how neatly all the song titles are written out in blue ink, he once told you he hung out in cemeteries with Brazilian Goth girls so one day you walked shyly to the very back of the bus where he sat to ask if he liked The Cure and to tell him about the tape you had recently got, then turn left somewhere to pick up Giovanni who was into Agnostic Front, he once lent you one of their tapes which you didn’t like, and his sister who may have had a crush on you, they were Chilean or something, and soon thereafter beautiful Carolina who had a pool in her front yard and spoke German, all the while you’re slouched down with your knees on the seat in front of you reading Allen Ginsberg or Nat Hentoff or Franny and Zooey, the second half of which you always envisioned set in your grandparents’ house on West 94th (who’s that beat guy having a smoke on the stoop next to your grandmother’s hydrangea?), and wearing your photographer’s vest and the Spanish army beret you got at a gun show in Cleveland with your grandfather, and eventually there’s the bridge over the Marginal Pinheiros, that nightmarish black river, virtually an open sewer through the city, never forget once seeing a guy slide into the water from a dinghy, you knew the stories of the alligators and chemicals and disease and how that former-family friend told his wife to just shoot him if he ever fell in there, the smell would lift as high as the nineteenth floor by noon and one time you even got sick from it on the bus alongside the river, you puked up scrambled eggs which ran under the seats as the bus went over hills, then further up there’s that skatepark where you went with Dan and Steve and Zach, it was drizzling and the concrete bowl was slick and you all kept wiping out and laughing, and there’s where you played paintball and the Jardim Sul mall, which had a go-cart track next to it, and straight up the hill which a certain stretch of Cedar Avenue in Cleveland for some reason always reminds you of, Jon’s apartment is there on the right, his parents were Mormon missionaries and you went over there once to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail, past Escola Graduada now where, at the end of your first year and on the very last day before summer, a car full of bandits armed with shotguns got in through the front gate somehow to rob the school, you were herded into classrooms by wild-eyed teachers clutching scissors, then swing down the hill towards Preston‘s apartment where you’d read MAD Magazine and do medieval battles in the emptied pool, Preston, who wore his black Jack Daniel’s t-shirt on every Brazilian independence day and had a mullet, there’s the McDonald’s where you and Steve skateboarded in the parking lot and you once ate two Big Macs after basketball practice, curve around past the Banca Aguia where you’d buy ice cream and peep more racy magazine covers, past that surfer Carlos’s apartment where you once wound up with Steve after school listening to Jimi Hendrix (at first you thought you had hung out with Renato, whose father supposedly took him to a brothel when he was 12, but that never would have happened), and then up towards Steve’s place where you’d listen to the Pixies, watch surf videos, play Nerf basketball with his brothers, eat quesadillas, and skate in his parking garage, Roxette and Ace of Base and Debbie Gibson or the classic Só Pra Contrariar on the bus radio the whole time, and finally you pull into the parking lot and look to the right to the top of the stairs near the field where you sat for lunch eating a sandwich and drinking a nice, cool can of Guaraná Antarctica before you played basketball or went to the library.