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Collages by Jim Goldberg, from Coming and Going, which was published in September by MACK © Jim Goldberg/Magnum. Courtesy the artist and MACK

In recollection it seems less memory than dream, how transformed the stricken city was. For years I’d been disheartened by its growing defacement: the brutal high-rises, the piled-up trash and hellish din, the garish advertising no matter where you looked.

But now I couldn’t help feeling guilty about the pleasure I took in the lifeless streets. To be the only pedestrian for blocks, to have an acre of Central Park to yourself. (And oh, the red-tailed hawks, the bald eagle landing almost at your feet.) If in the past I’d often found myself wishing to be elsewhere, grateful for any reason that took me away from New York, once the pandemic began I had no wish to leave. I didn’t share the widespread resentment toward those who’d fled to their country homes, but I understood the fantasy that the many departed residents—along with the millions of missing tourists—would not return.

Things a person with a cell phone might have been tempted to snap and share:

Young lovers huddled on a stoop, passionately making out through their face masks.

A standard black poodle wearing a matching leopard-print raincoat, booties, and mask. (Is there nothing dogs won’t put up with from us?)

In the window of a shuttered florist’s, left over from Before: help wanted. must have a clue.

Movie house marquee: see you on the other side.

There is a foolproof cure for writer’s block, according to a teacher I know: start with the words I remember. It’s true that when I see those words—wherever they might appear—I want to read on. And one of my favorite books is I Remember by Joe Brainard.

A question writers are sometimes asked: What’s a book you’ve read that you wish you’d written? The miracle of Brainard’s book is that you can write it. You simply do what he did: put down one memory after another as it comes to mind (arranging them all later however you might wish), always beginning with the phrase I remember.

(Actually, Brainard wrote more than one memoir of this kind over the years, but in time they were collected into a single volume, usually referred to as a work of autobiographical non-fiction but by some as a work of poetry.)

Miraculous: a book in which just about every sentence begins with “I” but whose author cannot be called a narcissist. Except if you share the popular view that all writers are narcissists and that those who write about themselves are so to an extreme degree. (I like this clarification by the narrator of a book by Stendhal: “It is not out of egotism that I say I, it is because there is no other way to tell things quickly.”)

Brainard, who was also a visual artist, was born in 1942, and I Remember is largely about growing up queer in midcentury Tulsa, Oklahoma. Among the many things he remembers are: poodle skirts and Perry Como shirts, people dancing the swing, the chicken, and the bop, grade school classmates sending each other valentines, Davy Crockett hats, blue suede shoes, “bouffants” and “beehives,” roller skate keys, raccoon tails dangling from car antennas, milkmen, jeweled bottle openers, the Campbell’s soup kids, Dick and Jane and Sally and Spot, pedal pushers, and pillbox hats. From which it can be seen that I Remember is also an enduring piece of Americana.

Also remembered: coming-of-age anxieties, wonders, pleasures, shames. Erotic yearnings and bewilderments. Questions. Why doesn’t God just end polio and wars? How can a baby come out of such a small hole? Do goats really eat tin cans?

Some memories are so common that many other people will remember them, too. The day John F. Kennedy was shot. And lots of “firsts”: cigarette, erection, hand job, time getting drunk. For most readers I know, this is one of the joys of reading I Remember: a memoir of one person’s life that is also about a collective past. But I have also known some who’ve been irritated: I remember pillbox hats, too. So what?

Imitations of Brainard are abundant, and “I remember” exercises have been used in writing classes for people of all ages as well as in various clinical settings, such as therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

© Jim Goldberg/Magnum. Courtesy the artist and MACK

Georges Perec started writing sentences beginning Je me souviens as an exercise and, like Brainard, ended up with a book. It delighted him that anyone at all could do what he and Brainard had done—here was literature that you didn’t have to be a writer to create—and he requested that, at the end of his book, a few pages be left blank “for readers to write their own ‘I remembers’ which the reading of these ones will hopefully have inspired.”

About a century and a half before Brainard’s memoir, an English poet named Thomas Hood wrote “I Remember, I Remember,” in which, as the feverish and despondent speaker looks back, he remembers, he remembers the house where he was born and several lovely images, such as a flower-filled garden, from what seems to have been an idyllic childhood. Hood’s piercingly nostalgic lyric inspired another English poet, Philip Larkin, to write his own “I Remember, I Remember,” in which the speaker finds himself stopped at a train station in Coventry, which happens to be where he was born, a place “where my childhood was unspent,” he quips: a void recalled in bleakly sardonic verses.

I like Günter Grass’s definition of a writer as “a professional rememberer.”

When I wanted to assign students an exercise based on Brainard’s book, I was concerned that some of them might feel inhibited: What I remember is none of your business. So I suggested that they make two sets, one in which they wrote down true reminiscences, another in which they made things up, and interleave them. It was always easy, though, to tell true from false. I could tell by the wording. And it was a revelation how many of the true ones were about abuse.

“I remember how my mother would make her girlfriends laugh by pinching me till I started to cry.”

Most often remembered: a grandparent dying, an absent father, parents divorcing.

Conspicuously missing: academic accomplishments of any kind, first love.

“I remember after I had my appendix out, I cried when I had to go home, because in the hospital everyone was nice to me.”

Now and then an arresting detail, such as this, from a daughter of Eastern European immigrants: “I remember the loaf of white bread under the Christmas tree.”

The inevitable—and invariably male—smart-ass: “I remember when I shot Mom between the eyes. She looked surprised, but she shouldn’t have been.” “I remember the time Kim Kardashian begged me for a date.”

And once, that rare thing in student writing: a good joke. “I remember how hard my thirtieth birthday was for me. I was thirty-four at the time.”

I remember how enthusiastic most of my students were about the assignment, and how it was the best work that many of them did all semester.

I remember thinking, Wouldn’t it be great to have written something as useful as Joe Brainard’s book? (Like the feeling I had when I saw that someone whose work I greatly admired had published a book of her collected stories. To have your complete oeuvre all in one place—how I envied that. One thick handsome volume. A plain cover—no image, just the author’s name and the book’s title. Reminding me of the first French books I owned, those serious-looking paperbacks: Gallimard’s Collection Blanche, the white collection, so called for the books’ cream-colored covers—though it might just as well have been for the authors’ skin. Against the pale background, the titles standing out in red: L’Étranger, La Nausée.

All your work fitting neatly into just one book—how elegant. How dignified. Not taking up too much space in the world. Not asking for too much attention. What writer wants to look back and think, I wrote too much? But it’s probably true of most. How often while reading the latest offering by some well-established novelist have I thought, It’s terrible what happens to writers. And, of course, in the time since the publication of that volume of stories by the person I was telling you about, she has already produced a book of new ones.)

I remember the end of childhood. It was June. I had finished sixth grade, and it was the day of my graduation from elementary school. In September I’d be starting junior high. No more walking to school. I’d be taking the bus—not the yellow school bus I’d taken in kindergarten and first grade, but the city bus. I’d be commuting like any grown-up, but instead of paying the fare I’d have a pass. Cause for anxiety: What happened if you lost your pass and didn’t have any money? How would you get home? Then you’d just have to walk (my mother). And in fact it was only about a mile and a half, not too far a walk, even in a storm—as I learned that winter when a blizzard cut the school day short.

And, instead of sitting in the same room with the same teacher all day, in junior high you moved from classroom to classroom and had a different teacher for each subject. More cause for anxiety: Would they be kind? (Elementary school had had its share of monsters, including some who not only believed but took pleasure in corporal punishment.) And besides the usual classes, like English and math, there’d be new ones, like phys ed, for which I’d need a special uniform.

And I’d be taking a language class—French—for the first time. I’d be taking instrumental music. I’d be taking art. The world was opening up to me. It was all a bit overwhelming.

I remember the wistful feeling that sometimes came over me in the days leading up to graduation and lent the day itself such poignancy. The only school I’d ever known, that I’d attended all those years—as far back as I could recall—everything that had happened there, years of life and learning, work and play, and now I’d never see elementary school again!

I remember an assignment from that first year of junior high: Write an essay describing an important day in your life. Explain the day’s importance to you then and how you feel about it now.

It was a happy day, it was a sad day, it was a beginning, it was an end, it was a new world beckoning, it was an old world lost to time.

It was me, obviously under the giddy spell of Dickens.

Not all of us would be going to the same junior high. I knew I’d never see some of my classmates again. Or my teachers, or the principal, or the cafeteria ladies, or the janitor, a humble, kindly Sicilian immigrant whose love of children was so intense that it illumined her like an aureole.

I remember how I popped awake that morning, hours before it was time to get up. Saw the sun rise for the first time in my life. Saw the pale light on the dress that my mother had made me—the prettiest dress I’d ever owned—now hanging on the back of the bedroom door: light-blue cotton voile, full skirt, cap sleeves, white midriff embroidered with flowers. To be worn with a new pair of white ankle socks and new white patent-leather Mary Janes. (A look that, only a year later, when I was twelve, would have been greeted with nothing but derision.)

I remember how my excitement grew with each fitting. Standing on a chair, my mother talking through the pins she held in her mouth—somehow she could do that without dropping or swallowing them. Another image of her: evenings in a rocking chair, bent over her embroidery like a scene from a hundred years before. And really, it was from her, wasn’t it, that I took in, early on, how much of life is shaped by sadness for what’s left behind. Hers was the abiding nostalgia of the immigrant, of one who’d come of age in wartime and for whom leaving home had been experienced as a mortal injury.

I remember sitting on a rock in the middle of a stream one hot summer day. Girl Scout camp. We had stopped to rest during a hike. I remember dipping a hand in the cold water and how it came to me—I don’t know whether it was something I’d heard before or something I’d arrived at just then on my own—that this was a way of describing time: a stream flowing swiftly along; it goes in one direction, it cannot be seized or stopped. And I remember finally getting why people (grown-ups) were forever pointing out how quickly time passed—which had until then seemed so plainly false to me (always happier at school than when stuck at home, I found summers endless)—and why my mother often said things like Sunday already! and I can’t believe it’s 1964! And this I connected with something else she said all the time, whenever we ran into someone we hadn’t seen in a while. No sooner was that person out of earshot than she’d say, My God, he (or she) got so old!

On the rock that day, my hand started to ache from the cold water. But I left it there because of the feeling I had, of being on the brink of some Idea, not wanting to lose focus.

Time passing was life passing, I thought. It was life that flowed swiftly along in one direction and could not be seized or stopped. And this was something that weighed on grown-ups, an inexorable force that they feared. My life, like everyone else’s, was passing, too—I got that. But I was still a child, I knew nothing of that fear. I knew only the excitement of my own mind turning over.

I’m going to be a poet.

I remember how much I wanted to share this startling revelation—to tell all about the very strange thing that had just happened to me sitting there on the rock in the stream—but with whom? Not the girls sunning themselves on other rocks or on the grassy banks, who, at someone’s suggestion, had just launched into “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a favorite troop song. I knew that if I tried to explain to them what had happened I would only sound weird. It wasn’t a scout thing. It was a thing that belonged to Introvert Me. Scout Me was Extrovert Me. I knew the distinction, if not yet the words.

Our leaders were forever hammering us about the need to look outside ourselves. Do a good turn daily was our slogan; our promise, To help people at all times. Self-reliance was encouraged, but not introspection (navel-gazing, ugh). Not self-expression.

I pulled my numb hand from the water and joined in the song.

I remember earning Girl Scout badges in first aid, horseback riding, weather watching, and camping. There was no such thing as a scribe badge, for writing, as there is now. Good God, there’s even a badge for novel writing:

Purpose: When I’ve earned this badge, I’ll know what it takes to write a great novel and I’ll have written at least twenty pages of my own. Step 1: Deconstruct a novel. Step 2: Create great characters. Step 3: Develop a plot. Step 4: Write at least twenty pages. Step 5: Edit your pages.

Easy peasy.

I remember how we marched into the auditorium, just as we always did for assembly, single file through two separate doors, boys on the left, girls on the right, Mr. Quin playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on the piano.

We had to line up according to height. Ahead of me was Emma, ahead of Emma was Diane, and first in line was a girl whose name I forget, along with what country she was from, though I can still see her so well. A tiny thing—stunted, it was said, from early-childhood illness or malnutrition. Tiny cross at her throat, tiny rings in her tiny pierced ears. In her pink organza dress with its giant bow at the back, a doll come to life. Half the size of those toward the end of the line.

I remember the last girl of all—the distinction most likely an agony to her—as big as the last boy, as big as some of the mothers and fathers watching us from their seats in the auditorium.

Here are the most recent statistics I could find for my elementary school, from the National Center for Education Statistics and the New York City Department of Education:

Gender: 51 percent male, 49 percent female

Minority enrollment: 96 percent

Overall New York State test ranking: 4,157 out of 4,228 schools

Math test scores proficiency: 14 percent

Reading/language arts test scores proficiency: 14 percent

Eligible for free lunch: 93 percent

I didn’t become a poet after all.

I remember, I remember. O beautiful refrain.

I saw the notebook as soon as I entered the park. Someone had left it behind, on a bench, where its bright-red cover caught my eye: a medium-size leather-bound Moleskine (I happened to have one just like it). Surely not on purpose, I thought. Someone must have been sitting there, probably writing in the book, then had put it aside and forgotten about it. It was the kind of mistake people everywhere were reporting those days, mistakes owing to unusual absent-mindedness: a symptom of pandemic brain fog. (Twice so far I had forgotten to pull out my bank card at the ATM.) I looked around but saw no one except a Parks & Rec worker up ahead, collecting trash.

I picked up the book and opened it to the flyleaf, where I knew I’d find details on how to return it—even a blank for the size of the reward. But no such information had been filled in.

Just then she appeared, walking rapidly in my direction. She wore a coat that was the same scarlet as the notebook, and a felt beret that was also red, though a shade lighter. I could read her anxiety from where I stood; it was in her gait and, as she neared, in her expression. She must have realized she’d forgotten the notebook and rushed back to retrieve it; she must have worried that it would be gone.

But when she saw me standing there, the notebook in my hand, she froze and, rather than happiness or gratitude or relief, the look on her face was one of dismay.

Confused, but with what I hoped was a reassuring look of my own, I held the book out to her: Is this yours?

She shook her head—once—avoiding my eyes before hurrying past, walking ever more quickly until she was almost jogging away.

What had just happened? I was certain that the notebook belonged to her. Why wouldn’t she take it?

She must have suspected that I’d opened it—and not just to the flyleaf. Say it was her private journal, a place for recording intimate thoughts, for baring heart and soul. That a stranger could have invaded this privacy, could have seen something that was never meant to be shared, was distressing to her. It was humiliating. She would rather lose the book for good than face that embarrassment. After all, she had chosen not to provide instructions “In case of loss . . . ”

Not knowing what else to do, I laid the notebook down where I’d found it. At once a squirrel hopped from the ground to sit squarely on it, like a storybook creature whose task was to guard it. But when he begged for food and I turned up empty palms, he took off.

I told myself there was at least a chance that the woman would come back later to look for the notebook again. And after I’d taken my usual long walk, I circled back to see if it was where I’d left it. It was not. I tried to convince myself that it was now safely in its owner’s possession but, remembering the trash collector who’d been there before, I knew it had more likely landed in his cart.

The whole episode had an exaggerated effect on me. Whenever it came to mind—as it did frequently—I felt a wave of regret. If only I had delayed my arrival in the park by five minutes! Rationally, of course, I knew I’d done nothing wrong. But it is possible—it is common, in fact—to feel guilty for something for which you were not at fault. With the exception of psychopaths, humans are made this way. There are those who’ve destroyed themselves because they were unable to prevent others from being destroyed. There is the phenomenon of survivor’s guilt.

I kept seeing the woman as she hurried away from me, her head down, her shoulders hunched: that look of defeat. I thought about her matching coat and notebook and her almost-matching beret, and how red must have been her favorite color. Red is my favorite color.

Returning home, she climbs the stairs to her apartment, where she lives alone. She climbs slowly, step by weary step. Inside she removes her hat but not her coat. The coat she unbuttons, and without taking it off she drops onto a chair at the kitchen table. She sits at the table in her winter coat and stares out the window. Her view is of other windows—there is an apartment building opposite—and because it is late many windows are lit, several of them showing television screens, some tuned to the same channel. The daily coronavirus press briefing. Dr. Birx. President Trump. She should turn on her own TV, she thinks—in a time of crisis, stay informed—but she makes no move to.

She sits staring across the way as if hypnotized by the screens’ flicker-flicker, not bothering to remove her coat or get up to turn on a light. She sits in the gloaming and the silence—that silence broken only by the sirens that have become so familiar, that will always haunt the memories of those who were at the pandemic’s epicenter.

A figure in an Edward Hopper painting. One of his ordinary people, isolated and vulnerable-looking, prompting the viewer to think, Something sad has happened to them.

s latest novel, The Vulnerables, from which this excerpt is taken, is out this month from Riverhead.

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September 2012

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