When you write something down in a notebook, then turn to the next page, you can sometimes see an imprint of what you wrote on the prior page, especially if you were bearing down pretty hard when you wrote what you wrote. Even if you throw away the written-on page, an attentive investigator can still read what you wrote, by looking for this imprint, or (as they say in the business) the palimpsest, on the underlying page. Palimpsest is one of my favorite words. It comes originally from scholars of ancient literature, who use this trick to, among other things, recover lost works, by looking for them in palimpsest form on the hand-illuminated pages of unlost works. In the modern era, a murder investigation can sometimes turn on a sticky-note palimpsest.
Palimpsests provide a handy metaphor for thinking about the way time works, especially the way that individual moments from the past can remain attached to a place. For example, there is a hill in Cherokee Park, here in Louisville, Kentucky, where I sometimes walk my dogs. The first time I came to this hill, there was a scary Public Works Administration era restroom at the top of it, an airless graffitied cinderblock square with broken-down, rusted toilet stalls and a leaky zinc urinal along one wall. The kind of place that is so gray that any sunlight that comes through any cracks in it looks pink, weirdly, against the gray. You’ve been in those kinds of places. You know what I’m talking about. That was the early nineties.
My boyfriend Joe told me that a gay guy had been killed in there once, when he was a kid, in the seventies. Other friends of Joe’s claim that that’s an urban myth. No matter. That murder, even if it never occurred, is a palimpsest for me. Every time I walk by that hill, I think of that murder in that restroom.
It happens, by the way, that that restroom is no longer there. In the early 00s, the city put up a beautiful, airy pavilion. That old, scary restroom still stands there in my mind, though, like an indentation in the air: it has become, along with the murder that may or may not have occurred within it, a palimpsest, too.
Hunter S. Thompson grew up near Cherokee Park, on Ransdell Street. I read somewhere that he used to go to Cherokee Park and have “hill parties” where he and his friends would burn tires in a bonfire. This hill, the one with the nice new veranda on it, the one with the palimpsests of the old restroom and the tentatively-historical murder, is the most likely candidate for such an activity. The hill I’m talking about is the centerpiece of Cherokee Park, a masterpiece of design, crafted by Frederick Law Olmstead, the same dude who designed Central Park in New York City. It’s also within easy walking distance of Hunter S. Thompson’s childhood home. That has to be the place. So Hunter S. Thompson and his tires and his fires and his childhood friends (and no doubt his drugs and his crazy-ass shenanigans) are another palimpsest that overlays the current reality of this hill.
I think of this stuff every time I walk my dogs there.
You collect these kinds of palimpsests when you stay in a place for a long time. They enrich your experience. I’m not just walking my dog on a hill. I’m thinking of a murder, and a scary old restroom, and a favorite writer, too. I’ve got a lot of palimpsests in Louisville, because I’ve stayed here a while. That’s a rare thing for me. Most of my life, I’ve moved around. I’m sure I’ve left behind many palimpsests in Denver, San Francisco, San Rafael, Portland (Maine, not Oregon), and everywhere else that I have lived. Russellville, Alabama, where I lived when I was a kid, is probably full of them (as are the nameless trailer parks we lived in when my dad was on a pipeline job — trailer parks, motels, campgrounds, etc., that I wouldn’t be able to find even if I looked for the rest of my life). I’m betting that these memories, in palimpsest form, would enrich my life if I ever reconnected with them. But I can’t, and they don’t, because I am never in those places, and to detect a palimpsest of place, you actually have to be there — otherwise there’s no way to feel the indentations in the aether. Many of those places probably don’t even exist anymore.
Is it better to stay in one place, and collect a bunch of palimpsests, a web of memories and connections and associations? Or is it better to throw yourself at random at the world, like a pinball in a pinball machine, like I did, forgetting half of the places you’ve ever lived, and the things you did when you were there — but making a lot of noise and having a lot of adventure?