When I was in college I tripped over the first love of my life. Bobby was a boy who became a man before my eyes, and we wandered into the adult realm of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, foreign films, and tiny apartments. We lived together, and I treated him less lovingly than he deserved.
He was totally smitten with me, and although I adored him, I loved more what he unleashed in me. And so when the opportunity came to have a grown-up affair with my former high-school art teacher, I leapt at it. And since it was the late ’60s, I believed I had to tell my sweet Bobby about it. After all, weren’t we supposed to celebrate this newfound equality, men and women standing toe-to-toe for feminism, rallying behind the pill and politics?
I also told him in a matter-of-fact way about the subsequent affair I had with the twice-my-age, married manager of the restaurant where I worked. This man flipped me upside down, spun me around, and then returned to his wife. And so, after the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I was left emotionally slack-jawed but equipped with a sexual vocabulary and a salacious travelogue that short-circuited any prospect of settling down with someone my own age.
Yet I returned to the apartment Bobby and I shared; squishing into our single bed, making hallucinogenic spaghetti sauce for our friends, enjoying our sloppy sheep dog. But I was no longer in love with Bobby and he knew that.
We stayed together for another six months, during which I was unfaithful but joyful whenever we found ourselves together. Bobby became morose and distant; he had every reason to feel that way. Finally I moved out, right into another boy’s apartment just down the street.
I am not proud of this behavior. It was thoughtless, unwise, and not a firm foundation for future anything. I thought I was being modern, off the cuff, sexually liberated; thought too much about me and not enough about the detritus I left behind.
What I am proud of is that Bobby and I have maintained a friendship for three decades that dims and flares with varying intensity, but has lasted. He is Bob now, a middle-aged man who races and rehabilitates cars; a former pre-med student who turned his ability to care and cure into a thriving business restoring classic beauties.
This past fall I crept back into regular touch with Bob when I was searching for a car as a gift for my husband’s 50th birthday. By chance, Bob had just restored a 1976 MGB, and it was exactly what my man wanted. I test-drove it with my 17-year-old son, Bob helped to get it inspected; he pointed me to classic-car insurance and special plates that read zinc 50, my husband’s business and his age. We were back and forth on the phone often, Bob and I, and I visited his shop.
On the day I picked up the MGB – after giving me a mini-tutorial in non-automatic chokes and the hidden latches for trunk, bonnet, and glove box – Bob took a breath and said: “I had a nightmare about you.”
I wanted to know, so he went on.
“We were back in college and you were having that affair with that restaurant guy, Peter, right? It was the same thing all over again. You leaving me, me feeling hurt, and angry that I hadn’t stood up for myself enough.”
I went to him and said how sorry I was for everything. I had apologized for the damage over and over in the past.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” said Bob. “I love my wife, I love our daughter, I am not sitting here with a hard one for you. I am as confused by this as you are. I just think it’s crazy the way brains keep things stored up, like some sort of dormant garden – and then maybe by seeing you again, it’s as if I kicked over a rock and out crept all this hurt.”
We talked some more, laughed, hugged, and I roared off in the MGB. Autumn leaves swirled at the tires, the wind felt more pronounced, and the car squealed on the curves. As
I waited for the light to change I started to cry. The sun was setting early now, and the chill air stung me when I rolled down the window and let in the September melancholy.
Where does all of this come from? All these emotions we warehouse over years, over decades? We change calendars, celebrate milestones, but the gardens of our minds still hoard sadness, hurt, and disappointment. We can’t predict or avoid what will release these hidden demons. We just have to acknowledge that they exist, honor them as part of our past, and keep on with life. The only defense I know is joy and forward motion.
Through my adolescence I was a flaneur, and never knew it. When I was a boy I wandered through the streets, parks, and schoolyards of my South Bronx neighborhood just avidly looking at everything that I encountered, and taking mental notes. Sometimes I would sit in the hard concrete stands of our local sandlot ball field watching the Puerto Rican league teams play, but also listening to the middle-aged men (taxi drivers? letter carriers?) watching the game. The men wore white ribbed undershirts and caps, smoked harsh smelling cigars, exchanged insults, and vented about their jobs that only seemed to oppress them. There was camaraderie but no intimacy between them — much loud, declamatory talk thrown out for their own pleasure and self-esteem, but little connection with the people they were talking to.
At other times I took long walks down the neighborhood’s main shopping street, observing how the stores changed over time; in the early fifties they were individually owned, comfortable, and welcoming jewelry, toy and clothing stores, dress shops and ice cream parlors, and then gradually they turned into a string of ninety-nine cent chain stores— their inventory sloppily laid out in cartons and on tables; cheap pizza -slice places; and a variety of other characterless, shabby, down-scale shops. The neighborhood was in decline by the late fifties, rows of stores were burned down for insurance, and clumps of vaguely menacing gang members in black leather jackets and ducktail haircuts and their girl-friends in their gang auxiliary sweaters hung out and postured in front of a luncheonette — signifying the street’s deterioration to anybody who passed by.
The walks I took, to be meaningful, had to be solitary ones; otherwise, I would lose myself in conversation, and miss much of the social detail that aroused my interest. And even when alone I had to avoid becoming involved in my own thoughts and feelings, and focus on what was outside myself. The fervor for walking held, and I have continued to take these walks in Manhattan, London, Seattle, and other cities for close to half a century. However, it’s only when I began to write about them that I discovered that my passion had a name.
It was Charles Baudelaire, the great 19th century French poet and prose writer (Flowers of Evil), who described walking down city streets as one of the most exciting adventures a person could have. He saw this act as far more dramatic than any play, richer in ideas than any book. And the term he used to describe a person who did this type of walking was “flaneur,” translated literally as a stroller or saunterer.
Baudelaire distinguishes his flaneurs from other people who either walk to work, or to meet somebody— for the flaneur’s walking is more fanciful, it doesn’t have a particular goal in mind. What he or she does is to open himself up to the scene around him. The flaneur observes how people eat, dress, speak, and play, their interest being whetted by daily living as much as by classical objects of art or historic monuments.
The crowd is the natural home of the flaneur— in Baudelaire’s words it’s “his domain. His passion and creed is to wed the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite.” Baudelaire also compares the flaneur to a kaleidescope armed with a consciousness that at every shake of the tube captures the movement of the elements it observes.
Flaneurs my be men or women of leisure who have a great deal of time for undirected wandering, but one shouldn’t overstate the flaneur’s amateur standing. For those flaneurs who are writers, like the American novelist Edmund White, a walk through Paris’s Marais in White’s book The Flaneur leads to a discusssion of the history of Jews in France. A visit to Belleville where Arabs, Asians, and blacks live, leads to White writing about how black American entertainers like Bricktop and Josephine Baker triumphed in Paris in the years between the wars. The writer flaneur doesn’t just respond to what he sees, but often threads his impressions with historical memories and sociological analyses.
I’m no Baudelaire or Edmund White but, just as they have evoked the sights and sounds of Paris, I try in my modest way to reveal what New York’s daily urbanscape feels like. A few weeks ago I took a walk to Union Square, once known for the left wing and labor rallies and demonstrations that were held there; and in more recent times, until it was renovated, a dangerous, forbidding spot almost solely inhabited by drug dealers and their customers. In 2008, there are homeless men still sleeping on the Square’s benches, and the addicts from the Beth Israel methadone clinic noisily congregate on weekday mornings there as well, but the majority of the people one sees are office workers reading their newspapers and lunches, NYU students chatting and studying, and upper-middle-class mothers watching their children playing in a sandbox.
And what surrounds the Square these days is not only the city’s most bountiful Farmers’ Market, but a once-abandoned, handsome, elaborately detailed 19th century building now housing a Barnes and Noble, and the famous landmark Guardian Life Building has reemerged as the chic W hotel complete with fashionable bar and restaurant. A number of new residential buildings are going up in the area, and with them upscale stores replacing the more marginal and seedy ones that provided bargains for their once working class and poor clientele.
I find the city’s eternal flux continually fascinating— little stays the same in New York, and there is always something new to discover on my walks. And like any good flaneur, I desire to persist strolling and observing until I have lost the will and energy to go on.