On August 11, I received an email from La Colombe announcing, “pumpkin spice draft latte is back!” At the time, I was sweltering in my 90-degree apartment. My air conditioner had been broken for two months. With two fans pointed at me at all times, and a constant refill of ice cubes and cold drinks, and my windows open, all I could think about was staying cool and hydrated (and the beeping trucks and pounding noises at the construction site directly outside those open windows). The beginning of pumpkin spice latte season was a welcome sign. I imagined autumn sweaters and crisp walks under changing leaves. It was comforting to think that even if the repair delays from my landlord, the HVAC contractors and the air conditioning manufacturer continued, temperatures would eventually drop. Perhaps that is how I somehow managed to write a post about the truth found in poetry that day.
I just finished reading Amy Shearn’s Unseen City. We learn early on that the novel is set during pumpkin spice latte season. Our hero Meg is a Brooklyn librarian. She is secretly tempted by PSL, but maintains her steadfast dedication to her black coffee order. I haven’t been to a coffeeshop since February. I have no idea if my favorite baristas are still employed at my favorite café, but I identify with Meg’s desire to maintain the identity she presents to the near-strangers behind the counter by resisting that sweet seasonal temptation.
I have much more than coffee in common with Meg: a bike is her preferred way to get around the city; she geeks out on maps and urban history; takes pride in knowing how her neighborhood came to be; and she is haunted. Unseen City is a ghost story.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. When I walk streets I know well, stories tied to buildings and houses and shops come alive: memories of past relationships, stories family and friends tell, and scenes from histories and memoirs I’ve read. Most of these stories do not concern dead people, but the moments, feelings, associations are only alive, can only be re-lived through memory. And these memories are strongest when triggered by the physical spaces where they occurred.
Meg is haunted by the ghost of her sister Kate, and for the most part, this haunting is the kind I identify with. Landmarks and mental associations bring Kate to life. Kate comes back to her as well when Meg is alone in her apartment. But the city is changing. The restaurants and shops Kate knew are changing. Meg learns she must move out of the apartment Kate knew. Will the forces of real estate untether Meg and Kate’s connection?
Another ghost is more substantial in Shearn’s narrative. Iris is a nineteenth century Black orphan in Manhattan who is adopted by a family in the free Black enclave of Weeksville. The book takes us back and forth in Brooklyn’s history to show us how the past remains present in the street grid, in buildings, and perhaps in spirits who are just as upset as Meg about having the physical evidence of their lives and memories erased by the forces of urban change.
Meg and Iris’s stories come together when a handsome library patron shows up to search for information about a haunted house his family owns. He is haunted by his own ghosts, as we all are. Sharing these hauntings becomes a way for the two to trust each other.
Unseen City draws parallels between the present and the past, the time of the old ghosts and newer ones. Civil War-era draft riots in which Irish immigrants lynched free Blacks and burned their homes are paralleled by Brooklyn’s racial tensions of the recent past and present-day. New ghosts created to cohabit the city with the ghosts of the past. A 150-year timeline is condensed and layered into a single present-day.
• • •
Wandering and haunting are tied together. Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, an essay on her wandering mind as she meanders the streets of London comes to mind:
The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past; nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now. His is the happiness of death; ours the insecurity of life. He has no future; the future is even now invading our peace. It is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace.—Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting: A London Adventure
When I visit Minneapolis or Philadelphia, it is tempting to drive or walk past all the places that conjure my favorite ghosts — ghosts of old relationships or of friends I rarely hear from. These are living people I could invite out for coffee (and sometimes do). But neither I, nor they are the person who haunts these places. We’ve changed far more than the buildings and streetscape have, so it makes sense that these physical places conjure the ghosts of memory. Much of my writing over the past few years has been inspired by these kinds of memories bound to geography (this is how I wound up owning the URL futurecartographic.org ). Chapters from my fiction are now as likely to haunt me at certain street corners as events I’ve lived through.
Even here in D.C., hauntings surround me. I’ve written about some of these in this series. U Street, where I now live and write from, contains ghosts of the joy of Obama’s victory in 2008, parades and music festivals, the 1968 uprising, and more. A bus shelter in Mount Pleasant is haunted by Trump’s win. I had walked late into the night contemplating Trump’s win. A friend’s text as I came to that bus shelter finally broke the spell, “what is going to happen? Is it going to be O.K.” she asked? The next morning, I walked to an art residency north of Georgetown. There were frustratingly few signs in the cityscape that helped make sense of the news. The sky refused to stay gloomy. The city went on. But now, that walking route and the hardware store I stopped at along the way are haunted by Trump’s win. What other hauntings will stay with me from the Trump years? Scott Circle filled with signs from the Women’s March. Boarded-up buildings and slow chanting and singing Black Lives Matter marches on my empty and quarantined street night after night.
What ghosts of memories will I carry from November 3? From the next two weeks? This weekend I made some fresh memories, bicycling and walking and talking of a possible small socially distanced backyard Halloween party. Will that backyard’s Halloween ghosts come to me as ghosts of memory in the future?