NEW YORK FLANEUR
By Terence Hughes
I’m 70. I worked at boring jobs all my life, mostly at the Post Office (letter carrier). I’ve been retired a couple years. I got my taste for books when I was a kid – studying English lit at Queens College. Then, the usual sad story of Guineas my age: my old man died and I had to quit to help out my mother. No more college for me.
When I was on Facebook all the time, interacting at a safe distance with a strange crew of other lonely people, I said I was looking for a new job – anyway, a new avocation. Yes, a calling, not a mere hobby. I mentioned that I had just read, for the third time, a captivating book by Edmund White, The Flaneur. I quote the key passage:
“And no wonder Paris, land of novelty and distraction, is the great city of the flaneur – that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps. In New York the stroller can amble along from the Wall Street area up through SoHo, the East and West Village, but then he must hop a cab up to Amsterdam and Columbus on the Upper West Side; rest of the city is a desert.” (pp. 16-17) – published in 2001 – little has changed.
I had come upon Edmund White’s books years before at some gay bookstore in the West Village. No, I’m not gay, but I did like the books they had there. I bought three or four of his and I got hooked.
Anyway, I quoted the passage on my Facebook and got the usual asshole advice. I didn’t want advice, I wanted to share my budding philosophy, my true calling, with them. I told them all to fuck off; I was going to go “flaner” on my own, without their dull-witted ideas. I figured I’d have plenty of my own to overcome.
I learned fast that, unlike in France, for example, in America you need an excuse to do nothing. Here you have to present yourself as doing something, a something that may be offbeat but legit. Like you’re in the throes of creation – writing a book about heroic dogs or composing an anti-government screed. Or you’re waiting for a friend or a woman; they never come and then you have to present a brave but hurt face to the people serving you. If brave and hurt enough, maybe they’ll console you with a free cup of coffee. Or a beer. Or, best of all, a cocktail. In America it’s about how much you can bilk out of somebody.
All that acting is antithetical to being a flaneur. In Paris, Edmund White implies, you can walk around with a totally blank face and not feel as though you’re playing a part. Act as you will, look as you feel. Be yourself.
I live near but not in trendy, soggy Red Hook, but in an ugly area right by the Gowanus Expressway. It’s the kind of area where it’s best to be a Mexican after dark. There’s not enough places around me to be a flaneur in. One week and that’d be it, even if you threw in Park Slope.
It’s something of a schlep to get into Manhattan. You take a slow, dirty train into the Capital of the World. The thing is not to look Outer Borough. In Manhattan they can smell it on you like dogshit.
To be a flaneur in New York City, subterfuge is needed.
I spent a long time trying to decide the right thing to take with me on these first expeditions. Backpack? Practical but they’re for students or tourists. Briefcase? No for a lot of reasons, plus you want to keep your hands free in case of trouble. I ended up getting a second-hand Manhattan Portage messenger bag. Decent shape, Craigslist. Shoulder strap so you don’t have to hold it all the time. Looks urban and “cool,” which for my age might not be ideal but to hell with it. A flaneur needs to be himself.
I also wore a jacket that I hoped wouldn’t peg me as Outer Borough or out of it. Craigslist again: a worn but comfortable Barbour jacket, quilted, not the waxy sweaty kind. It got it for only $25.
Footwear is always the hardest thing. People really peg you there. I had some new Rocksports, and I couldn’t shop on Craigslist for them. They’d have to take me, Rocksports and all. At least I knew enough not to wear ’em with white socks.
It took me an hour and a half to get to the Upper West Side. I took that part of town as a challenge, as I’d never spent a lot of time there. Edmund White says it’s a good place to be a flaneur, so I took his word for it.
As you walk up and down Amsterdam Avenue you see a lot of outdoor seating – mandatory for a flaneur – but not a lot of people sitting out there and watching the passing parade. It was a warm, sunny day in early April. Most of the little eateries were open. But it was an eye-opener. The people who were sitting around as potential flaneurs were engrossed in their smartphones. They never looked up. It could have been a “passing parade” of ghosts.
They were dressed all wrong for flaneurship, if you don’t mind me saying so. I don’t presume to know how the high and mighty of the Upper West Side dress, but sweat pants and baggy sweatshirts and gigantic sneakers made me think of a mall in Jersey. I thought of my idol, Mr. White, as he strolled hither and yon through Paris. I know he didn’t wear a slobbish outfit. I bet he got dressed to the nines. I bet he wore a boutonniere. I did.
It was almost noon when I chose a place and sat down. I liked its nondescript character and the fact that they served wine by the glass. The sullen waiter (just like Paris!) served me a shitty Cabernet, and I was ready to flaner away.
At first I was merely a little annoyed. The passing parade seemed to consist of frail old ladies with walkers, and their black female home health aides. Then came a few old men – old enough to make me look like a strapping youth – in their wheelchairs, assisted by black male home health aids. They pretty much filled up the place, making a lot of fuss over being cold, their diaper being full, etc. It wasn’t conducive to being a flaneur.
I finally caught the waiter’s eye and said, with a gesture at the ancients around us, “What the hell is this? They here for the early bird special?”
“Social Security day. They go out once a month and this is it.”
I made a face. He said, “They tip like it’s 1950.”
I was going to leave, but a flaneur has to be flexible. I called for a caffe’ corretto and tried to explain what it was, but they gave me a regular coffee and a huge snifter of brandy. On my first day of flaneuring, I thought this was a promising start. I toasted myself. “To my new profession: flaneur!”
A pretty but very old lady with white hair raised her glass of wine and toasted me back. “L’chaim! And good luck on whatever you said.” She knocked off a whole glass of red wine and gestured to the aide. She needed help standing and getting squarely behind her wheeled walker. It took her a long time to approach me, but when she did, she said, “I think it’s so nice to do something you love every day. It keeps you young!” She baby-stepped away huffing.
I sipped my almost-caffe’ corretto basking in the blessing of a 90-year-old babe.
The next day I took two trains to the East Village. I knew I could enjoy myself a bit. My Social Security check had come. I thought hard about what made a good place for flaneuring. Someplace with (of course) sidewalk seating – and big big windows for inside seating when the weather’s bad – where the pace of service is slow and open all day.
The problem in New York is that they’re always trying to roust you out and turn the table, even when there’s no one waiting for it. It’s in the DNA of the place. “We sincerely thank you for your business, now please get lost.” The worst places were the ones that pretended to have cachet, where well-educated young people were slumming their way through food-service jobs in order to live in Bushwick and get photographed by geniuses in poorly composed pictures. Oddly, their Brooklyn doesn’t suffer from the stigma of outer-boroughness.
You’d think that densely restauranted strip of lower Second Avenue would be a good place to exercise one’s flaneurship. There are dozens of places that have outdoor seating, there are wide sidewalks, there are people stopping to do one thing and another at all hours.
You’d be wrong. I went to one charming restaurant and sat outside. I was the only one. The waitress took her time appearing. She didn’t bring a menu. She said, “Can I help you?” In that frosty tone you use for siding salesmen and old ladies with one-wheeled shopping carts.
“To start I’d like a coffee and a small bottle of San Pellegrino.”
“That’s it?” She looked so vexed I was expecting the rings to fly out of her nose.
I told her it was and that I’d order lunch later. Twenty minutes later she showed up with the coffee and a bottle of still water. The coffee tasted burnt yet it was almost cold to the lip. I was keenly aware that Edmund White had never suffered such petty indignities in the City of Light. I departed without paying.
I went home and ate a baloney sandwich but returned to the Village the next day. I was determined to give this flaneur thing a real go. I decided to go to an Italian place I read about somewhere. The interesting thing is that it was right next door to another place, practically identical, where there had been some falling out between the owners. I didn’t know the whole story – didn’t care – but was interested to see where cool young TV and film stars and foreigners got together. After all, the possibilities for flaneuring!
Da Silvano was the bigger of the two, and I discovered it was very snooty. They kissed the ass of every piece of Eurotrash that happened by, but me they set in some uncomfortable corner of their outdoor space (where all the cranks and things were for the awnings). They let me sit for an hour with a cup of espresso and a glass of sparkling water. Just as I was settling into delicious flaneur mode, as the passing parade grew more interesting when a gay tour group from Texas came yahooing by, the waiter started “checking” on me every three minutes, asking if there was anything I’d like to order. After a half hour, I gave up and left him glaring at me, since I left a 3% tip.
Bar Pitti was less busy and a little less kissy-face, but it too was an impatient enterprise. I ordered my third espresso of the afternoon, to enjoy the warm spring sun and watch the passing parade. It was glorious, and I felt that here was a flaneuring haven for me. But then a mob of merry Italians, part of another damned vacation tour, poured into the place, and management asked if I would go inside. It was cramped and dark in there, depressing on such a fine day.
I had a spirited discussion with the maitre d’, and in plain English told him where to stick it. No pretense of a tip. I stormed out, angry and humiliated. I doubt if Edmund White had ever been treated so shabbily in the City of Light. To tell the truth, I was glad to get out before I got too hungry. $20 for a plate of pasta!
Now, various friends who have read my tale have complained, “But, Joe, you don’t show us any actual flaneuring. What about the colorful characters you’ve met? What about the amusing encounters with all kinds of different people?” Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I got rousted out of places so fast, or I was treated so badly, that I either didn’t meet anybody colorful or I wasn’t in the mood for it because I was so pissed off. Didn’t I say New York was an impatient place? I wasn’t just shitting around.
Anyway. I walked up Sixth Avenue. I took out my baloney sandwich. I ate it on a public bench. No Edmund Whitish flair. I felt like I was eating crow.
After a few days of flaneuring that I thought weren’t up to the Edmund White standard, I thought the problem was maybe I was aiming too low. I decided to hit tonier places, where they would, with their sophistication, completely understand my goals and methods. It would be implicit, not a question. I had to really save up my money, and so it wasn’t till I was fortified with the next Social Security check that I dared go forth. This foray wasn’t going to cost me just a few coffees and shitty pastries at Starbucks.
I had a secret thrill as I rode the train under the East River, imagining the clean, rich, gleaming world up ahead. I was going to flaner at the St. Regis Hotel. For me it was like stepping into a museum. It seemed so perfect and eternal. But not like the Met – smaller and less pompous.
I settled myself at the bar and introduced myself to the bartender. He was an affable young guy with Brooklyn in his voice. “So what can I get you, old timer?”
Two words to deflate me. Thanks, shit head. There’s two words for you.
I told him a G&T with two wedges of lime and Bombay Sapphire gin.
“Nice choice for today,” he piped. “Warm spring so far.”
Given the cost of the thing, I knew I’d have to nurse it for about two hours. I grunted. When I got the drink, I tried to hide my discomfiture sipping it so delicately it dribbled down my chin.
“Look,” I said, wiping it discreetly, “I’m trying to be a flaneur but it’s damn hard in this town.”
The bartender, who said his name was Declan, smiled and sighed, “Ah, Edmund White.”
“You know his work too!”
“Oh, sure. I get so many people in here who’ve read The Flaneur. Why is that?” I summarized for him my misadventures in lower places. He shook his head. “Sounds as good a reason as any other.”
We discussed the subtle messages of Mr. White’s book, and Declan rhapsodized about Paris. “I haven’t got there yet,” he said, “but guys like Edmund White make you feel like you know it ahead of time. No one does that about New York.” I told him that was because New York was his home, and there was no way he romanticize it. “You’re romanticizing it,” he told me.
“Trying,” I replied. “Not much success so far.”
Declan comped me, with a wink, to a second drink. “You know, Joe, I think your problem in acting out your flaneur dream is your age.”
“There you go again.”
He said he was serious. He contrasted the reception and attention a 70-year old man gets versus one in his mid 40s. “You come in with a decent suit or blue blazer and a good quality briefcase, and they’ll accommodate you in every way. You can sit around all afternoon and order, I don’t know, some sparkling water and a few coffees.
“You come in at 70, they’ll think you’ll take up residence and leave behind an old-man smell. They want you out. That’s the truth, man.”
As usual, the recommendation is to spend a lot of money getting props together for effective flaneuring. That’s New York to a T. Accessorize yourself into the poorhouse but look good getting there. I took what he said somewhat to heart. I needed time to absorb it all.
“Mind if I sit at one of these tables?”
“Sure. A lotta old guys can’t take sitting on these stools for a long time. Bad for the back or something.”
I went to a seat where I could survey the entire room. It was very quiet; maybe the rich people had already left for the Hamptons. A tipsy old lady dressed like Jackie Kennedy in one corner; getting ready to pay and go up to her room. In another a man, unconscious, sprawled over a table at a banquette. There was a clutter of glasses and bottles around him.
“How long’s he been there?”
“Dunno. He was there when I come in today. I called someone to come get him, but nobody wants to.”
“What if I drank like that? Would you let me stay?”
“Shit, no. But you’re not Kiefer Sutherland.”
What’s that long German word that says you’re sad about someone’s bad luck and happy about it at the same time? I think it’s schattenfrude, my memory isn’t what it is. Anyway, I felt sort of bad for the former star of “24” but I didn’t exactly toss and turn over it. And he was bad for flaneuring. I left pretty fast, depressed and out over $20 for a weak gin and tonic.
The next Sunday I shook myself off and decided to go to what the chic people were calling NoHo (these silly real estate names! Like they’re a ruse to keep you from realizing just how ripped off you will be!).
The weather was very warm and the streets were packed with late-risers and family groups questing for a decent meal at the least over-inflated price. I went inside Lupa, the ever-popular Mario Batali outpost in the village. I complained before about $20 pasta – what a fool I was. But this stuff was good.
I was starved when I got there. I was ready to splurge on pricey pasta. I was ready for some decent house wine (it was pretty good and not all that expensive). I was going to be a flaneur for the entire afternoon. I heard celebrities came to Lupa for a good, unpretentious meal and hung out for a long time. The vibe was good. And there in the middle of the room was Ray Romano and his entourage, who sort of embodied it all.
I was sitting rather close to the great man and so I heard every pearl that dropped from his lips. I ate and drank as slow as possible so I could hear every word. It was very entertaining and had a lot of heart. Sad tales of some of the older cast members, the practical jokes of the galoot who played his big brother, script changes brought on by pressure groups. I even ordered dessert so that I could hang on longer.
Eventually, the restaurant manager brought me by bill. “I’ll take your credit card now.” Slight stress on now. Was this how they treated customers in Bataliland? I muttered, under my breath, “A humble, solitary flaneur can’t find a place to rest his walking stick but Ray Romano can hold forth to a bunch of toadies for hours about his ancient TV show.”
A few minutes later the manager came back with someone who must have been the ubermanager. “Sir, there wasn’t sufficient credit to process your check.” Not in a whispered voice. An edgy, mean voice. “They asked me to cut up your credit card.”
I offered all the usual defenses. Surely there must be – No, I don’t have another card – Did you get the number – How much over – So terribly sorry!
Romano waved the ubermanager over. They conferred.
“Mr. Romano asks you to accept the payment of your check in gratitude for listening so well and appreciatively to his every word.” Romano raised a glass. I stumbled out in an agony of shame.
Who the hell did that Lord Ray think he was?
Back home and over the following week, I looked coldly at the factors that had led to my humiliation at the hands of a well-meaning, rich has-been. It occurred to me that I simply couldn’t afford to flaner in nice restaurants and high-end bars, no matter what their attractions might be. Anyway, it occurred to me that if collecting celebrities was my real goal, then I wasn’t a flaneur worthy of Edmund White. I was some sort of moron, and I didn’t think a flaneur was a moron. I had to re-center myself and not expect anything more than charming, chance encounters.
I waited a few weeks before I took the train back into Manhattan. It was late in May – a perfect spring day. The trees were in leaf. Green things blossomed. I walked around the West Village, savoring the beauty of the crooked little streets and the old brick houses that lined them. I passed by many wee restaurants and cafes. They were bursting with customers, and the sidewalks were filled with their happy chatter. Beautiful young people sauntered by like princes and princesses in shorts and flip-flops. I was feeling carefree, almost.
After a few hours I got hungry and decided to stop at a tiny place that had a lot of its seating outside. Tartine. They served decent wine and good coffee. Simple food. No pressure to give up your table. Flaneur heaven in Manhattan. At last.
I had finished all but the last of my wine. I was rereading The Flaneur for perhaps the 80th time. A dumpy old man stopped short when he saw the cover (I always keep dust jackets on, it’s a low-class habit, but I like the color). He said, “Excuse me.”
“Do you like that book?”
“It’s a bible to me. I’m a flaneur manqué!”
“I wrote that,” he said, somewhat shyly.
I looked at him again. I remembered old pictures of him on other dust jackets. “What happened to you?”
“Oh you -- You’ll never be a flaneur!” Crestfallen and angry, he went on down the street.
I watched him hobble away. I filled my lungs deeply with spring. Gorgeous young people were passing by, chatting and laughing, in no hurry. A long afternoon stretched ahead. I felt luxurious, even happy.
Fuck you, Edmund White – I was a New York flaneur.