Minefields on Memory Lane: Paris vs. New York



Neighborhood: Paris

Chestnuts bloom in Paris

Memory undoes me.

I am wistfully envious of folks whose past unfurls behind them with focus and drama, like a highway seen from the back of a childhood station wagon, or a vast Midwestern plain viewed from an airplane window above. The clarity of their vision, its narrative continuity and expanse, seem so exotic as to be almost alien. By contrast, I am one without a visual memory and too often find myself taken aback by the flickers and fragments of recall that come from behind to mug me.

We’re told we’re the stories we tell ourselves. If that’s true, my sudden startling revelations of memory are like shrapnel, shredding what I think I know and who I think I am, especially as I toggle between my keyhole view and the big-picture vistas crafted by others.

In April, I used a trip to Paris as an opportunity to read with abandon—in cafes and gardens and in bed late at night in my hotel room. A New Yorker piece by Jay Caspian Kang on crime and local prosecutors sent me reeling. In his essay, Kang examined the new Alameda County (Oakland), California DA who had refused to seek jail time for the Black gang members whose crossfire killed an Asian toddler.

Reading it, I suddenly became aware that the prosecutor, Pam Price, had been my next-door neighbor during my freshman year at Yale. She was a deceptively adorable young Black woman whom I ultimately perceived as batshit crazy. Roommates reported she busted down her door the day she forgot her keys. An earlier run-in with Pam had already made me wary. When the notoriously racist biologist William Shockley had come to campus, Pam had requested I retrieve my allotted two tickets to his lecture and turn them over to her. I asked her why, and she explained she was gathering tickets so that no white student would be able to hear Shockley speak. When I refused her request, Pam shifted from charming to furious.

Still, if I lived in Oakland I’d have voted for Pam. Maybe radical change requires someone who busts down doors.

Thinking about Pam unsettled me. I don’t know much but I pride myself on collecting people who specialize in sorting right from wrong, people whose moral compasses are precision instruments. As I read, it occurred to me that my own moral compass is probably askew, in ways I can’t begin to imagine.

And Paris, what could Paris tell me about myself? Paris was the city my IBM-employed dad got transferred to in 1967, the city of my tweens, the city my parents hated.  Almost every weekend of my Paris childhood, we’d go to the American library and the American grocery.  The best treat was to go to the Hilton for hamburgers and sundaes.

My return trips to Paris as an adult were not sentimental excursions down memory lane, but rather attempts to nurture the cosmopolitan self that makes me love New York City and could have, should have, made me love Paris as a kid.

The Pam Price prick to my conscience and complacency made me naggingly conscious of my trick memory. I felt compelled to take a new look at the address where my parents, brother, and I had collectively moped for three years, 107 Avenue Henri Martin.

The site was startlingly spectacular. My visit was mid-April, and while much of Paris was awash in cherry blossoms against otherwise bare tree branches, my old neighborhood was lush with the dark and satiny foliage of chestnut trees, a swank expanse of quiet cool leading straight to the Trocadero. My old block, which abutted the Bois de Boulogne,  was packed with 19th century architectural stunners—with the single exception of the tacky mid-20th-century modern apartment house we had reluctantly called home. It was now adjacent to the Embassy of Bangladesh.

Just a few precocious chestnut trees were in full bloom. Still the beauty of the foliage and the architecture made me gasp and contemplate my parents’ capacious talent for unhappiness. What the hell was wrong with them?

Throughout my trip, my disorientation was deepened by the surreal juxtaposition of shifting weather and street scenes. At one moment, near the Hotel de Ville, Paris’s City Hall, I sought to take a photo of perfect cherry blossoms only to recognize that I was mere feet away from a protest march. A toxic cloud of tear gas gagged me and burned my eyes, forcing me to dash into an alley, which had a plaque commemorating the select few French who helped Jews escape the Nazis. Later, en route to the flea market on Paris’s northern outskirts, in Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine, I came upon a wall listing the names and ages of Jewish villagers—as young as three years old—who had been deported to their deaths.

Upon my return to New York, a friend pointed out what should have been obvious. My Jewish but devoutly nonobservant parents—especially my Dad, a WWII vet whose first language was Yiddish—were surely freaked by French complicity with the Holocaust.  Twenty-five years before our sojourn, many of the same people that we were living amongst would have had us all killed. We never once talked about it. While in Paris, we just fervently counted the days till summer and our return to the U.S.

I still love Paris.  But now I realize why New York is home, in a way that Paris could never be.


Phyllis Eckhaus cannot believe how lucky she is to live in Greenwich Village. Her writing can be found in odd pockets of the Internet, including In These Times and The Village Sun.

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§ 5 Responses to “Minefields on Memory Lane: Paris vs. New York”

  • Maria Ragucci says:

    This is a gorgeously written and succinct reflection on the author’s life, and how perspectives change. I was moved and prompted to do some reflecting of my own. I think we need to be reminded often how valuable it is to look at our lives in a compassionate and searching way, and this essay is an eloquent example of that.

  • Irene Gilman says:

    Delighted to see your essay published. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Mary Lou Benard says:

    What begins as a beautifully written nostalgic yearning for an exotic vision of her youth develops into a rich sophisticated introspection and incisive analysis of recurrent racism that resurfaced throughout her life. This search unravels her parents’ seemingly inexplicable attitudes into a rational and comprehensible explanation to her now mature mind. Well worth your time.

  • Leila says:

    Beautiful story! How often do sites bring back memories, incomprehensible until our more mature minds can finally review and decipher their significance and meaning. Really enjoyed reading it.

  • Ghurron S. Briscoe says:

    Ms. Phyllis Eckhaus’s cleansing recollection in Minefields of Memory Lane, it evolves with the gift that enrichs perception. Read with pleasure while relaxing with good insomnia at home with elation as a male of African American nearing at age fifty, on the hours before Sun., Nov. 12, 2023.

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