The lumber yard fire that happened Saturday night smolders on Veteran’s Day. A low gossamer halo surround the site, a plume of light smoke rises in a line towards the halo and blends in. Queen Anne and ghostly blue Mt. Rainier are in the offing. Sea planes follow the ship canal to land in Lake Union.
Yesterday, I walked one mile round-trip west along Market Street towards the Puget. The corner construction site is now a 5-story box that will house The Polyclinic, Target and Equal Exchange Coffee. When I moved to Seattle 2-years ago, it was a closed gas station, Burger King and small office building. When businesses close slowly in a specific location developers are waiting out leases.
Windows are being installed in a rush to beat the rainy winter. There is the strong smell of tar being pumped from a gurgling spasmodic truck in a pipe towards the truck. The old truck looks as antiquated as the carcinogenic materials it stores. Tar smells old. I cover my mouth with my shirt as I pass the site.
Across 15th, is a large apartment building called Urbana with retail space on the ground floor. Locals lament the tearing down of the 24-hour Denny’s that holds so many memories. When the landmarks of our youth are replaced we often feel replaced. Denver Omelettes are not just in Denver.
I hear stories about Denny’s, but not Manning’s, a restaurant that held memories before Denny’s. Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher theorized in his book State of Exception that government use the “state of exception” concept as a totalitarian tool to advance political agendas in the name of the public good. In such a state, normal law and order goes out the window in favor of policy that discriminates, oppresses and even kills in “exceptional” times. He said, “Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was. Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again.”
The “once again” is illusory. As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Restoration and landmark status require ongoing financial resources and the investment of a public that wants that remembrance. It costs money to remember. It also costs money to “never forget.” Who we want to remember and who we want to forget is the question and moral imperative.
Giorgio Agamben said, “To believe that will has power over potentiality, that the passage to actuality is the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of potentiality (which is always potentiality to do and not to do) — this is the perpetual illusion of morality.“
I often remember my childhood in a suburban town on Long Island. It’s comforting to remember a simpler time, but, in hindsight, the landmarks of remembrance often remembered events, histories and cultures that did not include me. I looked in and was educated about history that assimilated me.
Mitch Landrieu who is the Mayor of New Orleans made the controversial decision to confront our country’s past and remove confederate statues from the public sphere. In his book In the Shadow of Statues, he says, "There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence for it."
Is it more important to spend energy and resources on “remembrance” or “contemporariness?” As my frail mother lives her remaining days in an adult family home, it is easier for me to remember the past. My will will not stop her inevitable death. The ambiguity of now is a defense to forget then.