December 11, 2018, 3:22

“The Memory Palace”: History in Escapist Vignettes |

“The Memory Palace”: History in Escapist Vignettes |

Nate DiMeo’s long-running independently produced podcast “The Memory
Palace,” part of the Radiotopia collective, is about history and, in its
way, part of history itself: DiMeo started it in 2008, and a decade is a
long time in podcast years. It’s both an established veteran and an
esoteric indie, consisting of short vignettes about people, places, and
objects from the past and the memories they contain—the old Coney
Island, the year Hank Greenberg hit fifty-eight home
the early-twentieth-century Mexican-American botantist Ynés
and performed by DiMeo, without the intrusion of other voices, set to
faint background music. Episodes tend to be short—eight minutes, twelve
minutes—and transporting. DiMeo sounds like a wistful youngish man
dreaming into a microphone and teaching us things at the same time. It
has carried him, and his audience, a long way. DiMeo was the 2016-17
artist in
residence at the Metropolitan Museum of
where he created several
episodes based on its
collections. Last year, as well, a book of “Memory Palace” stories,
translated into Portuguese, was published in

One way to experience “The Memory Palace” is to jump in anywhere, or to
start with the most recent episode and work back; if you’re listening on
a phone, it’s hard to poke around for topics of interest, because DiMeo
omits episode descriptions in an effort to make the listener just
surrender to listening. You can do that, or you can start with the
show’s best-episodes
page, which does indeed
feature a bunch of winners. One of the show’s loveliest episodes, about
the Dreamland amusement park in Coney Island, which burned down in 1911,
is there.

You could go to Dreamland. You just caught the ferry at Twenty-third
Street or the Battery. Or slogged your way through the slow crawl of
horse carts and motor cars heading south on Shell Road and the golden
light of the late June afternoon. Down to the edge of the Atlantic,
where a white city rose up above the brick and ash of Brooklyn. And
you could walk through the fake marble gates as the sun went down, and
the sea flashed amber and then gray. And Staten Island disappeared
into the shadows, and the light grew dim enough for you to fool
yourself that the marble wasn’t fake at all. And then the bulbs
blinked on, a million of them, lighting up the night in the largest
amusement park in the world, which was a hell of a thing to see. Just
a few years after you’d seen your first electric light at all. And
after you’d spent a twelve-hour day in some basement room, or some
windowless factory floor, stitching sleeves or packing boxes, fitting
fingers to gloves by gaslight. It’d be a hell of a thing even now, to
see dozens of white buildings made to look like French pavilions,
Roman Fora, Florentine towers.

An episode about the White Horse Inn, in Oakland, possibly the oldest
gay bar in the United States, is lovely, too. He imagines a man walking
in “on just the right night in 1936 or ’46 or ’54” and seeing “the most
beautiful man he’d ever seen in his life, and just be done for.” And
“another man who’d heard of this place, heard of places like it
whispered about, or mocked by the fellas in the assembly line, or in the
office, or in his usual joint across town” fighting through his fear to
go there, “who may have circled the block, all butterflies, before
working up the courage to park. . . . Maybe he pulled his collar up and
tipped his fedora low and pushed through the door as fast as he could,”
and inside finding a place “where men talked to men by the fireplace in
the back, where women flirted with women in the light of the jukebox,”
and knowing that “this was the place he belonged.” DiMeo is empathetic
and imaginative in his memory-conjuring, basing his history both on
reading and on human emotion. One of the most nostalgia-inducing
episodes, for a person of my era and demographic, is an October, 2017,
episode called “A Brief Eulogy for a Commercial Radio
about WBRU, in Providence. At the end, it lifts off into “Vapour
Trail,” by Ride, and you
float away, into the glow of remembered adolescence and driving to the
beach. History can be the nineties, too.

The show’s topics are wide-ranging, the style literary throughout. Some
episodes have portentous, Sufjan Stevens-like titles: “Developments in
the Design and Manufacture of American Menswear 1840-1860, a
Fable,” “Notes on an Imagined Plaque to Be Added to the Statue of General
Nathan Bedford Forrest, Upon Hearing That the Memphis City Council Has
Voted to Move It and the Exhumed Remains of General Forrest and His
Wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from Their Current Location in a Park
Downtown, to the Nearby Elmwood
Most are shorter and evocative: “White Heat, White
Lights.” On
the show’s site, DiMeo lists, at length, books and articles consulted,
with links (“Baby Pilgrims, Sturdy Forefathers, and One Hundred Percent
Americanism: The Mayflower Tercentenary of
1920,” for
example), and the music included in the episode, from Nils Frahm to Fats
Waller, all with links. In 2016, on the eve of the Presidential
election, from a motel room in Phoenix, DiMeo released a
special episode, an hour and thirty-eight minutes long, in which he read
Walt Whitman’s “Song of
Myself” in its entirety. In this performance, you can hear the anxiety, hope,
and fear of that political moment, and the urge to turn to history to
airlift oneself beyond it.

If you’re in a certain mood, “The Memory Palace” is transporting,
provoking gratitude for its humanistic historical lessons and DiMeo’s
care and attention. In other moods, it can make me feel a bit impatient.
DiMeo’s vocal style—earnest and gentle, at times inflected with
something like pride—can remind me of the self-conscious delivery I’ve
heard at poetry readings, both heightening the language and distracting
from it. His style is very particular, and it’s just what he wants; it
might be just what you want, or it might not. And that’s O.K. with him.
I met with DiMeo recently, in New York, and he told me, “I remember
being in a band when I was in my mid-twenties, thinking that the best
thing in the world was to be in a band and have, like, ten thousand
listeners, and have, like, two thousand of them love them, and have ten of
them have that be their song at their wedding, and having one of them be
the thing that they want played at their funeral. Like, have that kind
of connection.” When the podcast found its audience, he said, “It was
like, that’s what I have. I’m like a modestly successful indie musician
that some people really love.” His goal was to make art, and he was
happy with it.

If you knew DiMeo only from his podcast, and imagined him broadcasting
from an old attic somewhere in the heartland, you might be surprised, as
I was, to learn that DiMeo had written for television—an episode of
“Parks and Recreation,” an episode of “The Astronaut Wives Club”—and
that his wife, Leila Gerstein, a TV writer (“Gossip Girl,” “The O.C.”)
and producer, created the Dixie-doctor dramedy fantasia “Hart of Dixie,”
starring Rachel Bilson. DiMeo was also a co-writer of the “Parks and
Recreation” book “Pawnee: The Greatest Town in
which is credited to Leslie Knope. DiMeo and his family live in Los
Angeles. His life has had an unusual trajectory so far.

“There’s actually an episode about my family home,” he told me. The
episode is called “Origin Stories,” and in 2014 Slate named it one of
the twenty-five best podcast episodes of all
DiMeo’s parents, who were teachers, “grew up on opposite sides of the
wrong side of the tracks in Providence, Federal Hill.” DiMeo and his
family moved to Rehoboth, Massachusetts, where he grew up. In high
school, he had a terrible thyroid problem, he told me—a “radically
awful” case of Graves’ disease, long undiagnosed, that made him thin and
sluggish and gravely ill until it was treated. “Seventeen is the perfect
time to realize that you’re mortal,” he said. “It’s when you’re first
reading your Kerouac or watching ‘Harold and Maude,’ and you’re like,
‘I’m going to live, man!’ ” The experience centered him, he said. “I’m
sure that a lot of the earnestness that infuses ‘The Memory Palace,’ and
its heart-on-its-sleeve-ness, comes from that.” After college, in
California and Rhode Island, he played in a band in Providence, parked
cars for a living, and moved into the two-story tenement where his
mother and grandfather grew up, which still belonged to his family and
was full of his grandparents’ stuff—“eighty-something years of stuff,”
he says in “Origin Stories.” (The episode, which describes the house and
his grandfather’s former night club, is colorful and evocative—DiMeo’s
own history fits right into “The Memory Palace.”)

DiMeo wanted to do something creative for a living, but he wasn’t sure
what. “At that time, Rhode Island got its first legit public-radio
station,” he said. “That’s where I first started to hear ‘All Things
Considered’ and ‘This American Life.’ ” This was a minor revelation.
“Oh, they’re doing things that are artful,” he said. “A couple of
stories blew me away.” One, about two children who died in foster care
in Chicago, was layered and heartbreaking, he said. “I was aware that
what had just happened to me was the same thing that happens when a song
comes on the radio,” he said. Audio narratives have “the ability to
change your day out of the blue.” When he became involved in an effort
to save a local dive bar from closing and a radio reporter called him
for a quote, DiMeo asked if he could come in and talk about the
business. He did, and then parlayed that into public-radio jobs, as a
booker, an editor, and a reporter. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles
and worked as an editor at “Marketplace.” All along, he wanted to do
more on the air. “So I left and started reporting for NPR, as a contract
reporter, doing pop-culture stories,” he said. “But I really had this
desire to create a thing of my own.”

He got the idea to do a history show on weekends for NPR, and he started
the podcast as a kind of “statement of intent.” But very quickly, he
said, “I just realized that I loved doing this thing.” The first “Memory
Palace” episode, called “Horrible
Deaths,” from November,
2008, is an account of five historical horrible deaths—involving dental
arsenic and the like—and, if you click on it, you hear a gentle
intrusion from the Nate DiMeo of the future, suggesting that you start
elsewhere. I’m not sure why; it’s perfectly good, if disgusting, and
Nina Simone plays piano in the background.

Eventually, he found his groove and built an audience, putting out
episodes on his own schedule. “I would just put it out and they’d be
happy that it came,” he said. “And they were super devoted. I was
waiting to be inspired and treating it like an art project. I had always
wanted to have an art voice of my own, and I happened upon this format
that allowed me to articulate things I cared about.” I’ve been impressed
by fans’ devotion to the show, and sometimes amused by it. In comments
on an episode from January,
2015, a man wrote
that he was irate because at one point some music distracted him. “That
pisses me off,” he wrote. “I listen with my eyes closed and try to
visualize the story.” He loved the show so much, in other words, that he
was mad when it interrupted his reverie. It’s a historically pertinent comment: the music he objected to sounded like a playful nod to the theme
from “Serial,” which had recently become a huge hit. And
“Serial,” which had nothing to do with “The Memory Palace,” was
nonetheless a force that changed everything, for DiMeo and many others.

After the success of “Serial,” DiMeo told me, “I was this boat that got
rapidly lifted.” In early 2015, suddenly a huge body of new listeners
wanted more podcasts. “Then there were all these lists. BuzzFeed
listicles—‘if you like this, you’ll like that.’ ‘Memory Palace’ just
kept showing up, because there were relatively few of us who were like
doing public-radio-style storytelling exclusively in podcasts. Suddenly,
my raw downloads doubled, when I hadn’t even released an episode.” By
then, he’d got into TV screenwriting, but he pivoted and decided to
focus on “The Memory Palace.” He met with some podcast networks and
joined Radiotopia, which appealed to his own “punk-rock, D.I.Y.
philosophy,” he said. “The Memory Palace” has been his full-time gig,
and full-time living, since then.

You can feel his pleasure in doing the show. In his final episode of
2017, “Nate’s Episode of the Year,” he says, “To have performed in five
different countries, from a field in Tasmania to the atrium of the Met
Museum of Art—it’s kind of amazing.” Then he proceeds to do what he
loves: taking us to a beautiful place from the past. We’re in a
ballroom at the
Met. You can go to it, or you can imagine it. “People used to dance in
this room,” DiMeo says. “Back when this room used to be in a different
room, all the blue woodwork, the fireplaces, and that balcony that hangs
over the floor used to be a ballroom, on the second floor of a hotel
called Gadsby’s Tavern, in Alexandria, Virginia, starting in 1791.” It’s
been in this space since 1924, when the Met installed it in the American
Wing, to elevate a historic furniture-and-art collection. In Virginia,
DiMeo says, the windows used to let in “the sounds of wagons on rutted
roads, the smell of horses on rutted roads.” America was brand new, he
reminds us. Clinking glasses and drunken laughter “came up muffled by
the floorboards from the tavern downstairs. . . . Outgoing President John
Adams threw a big to-do right here in this room, for incoming President
Thomas Jefferson. And for years they had a ball for George Washington’s
birthday.” Then DiMeo, the grandson of a night-club owner and a
showgirl, dreams aloud, about dancing.

This was a room where people danced. And what more noble purpose is
there for a room than dancing? If you have to be a room, be a room where
people dance. If you have to be a floor, be a dance floor. And now, here
in the center of the room, free of all the fine furniture, you have two
choices. You can try to picture this room as it was. Smell perfume and
roasting duck. You can try to hear the band up there in the balcony. See
George Washington watching the dancers from a chair on the side, wishing
he still had it in him. See women and men who still do circling the
floor, candlelight flickering in their eyes. You can stand here until
you get it, until this feels like a room where people dance. Or you can

Then the show becomes music, and dances into the realm of the


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