“Not far from seedy Sandy Boulevard,” a local newspaper article read, some time ago, attempting to describe a seeming paradox of a nice neighborhood limited by the desolation of the average urban street, where Easter bonnet parades have given way to noir glassed evenings, streets that help distinguish the right from the wrong side of the tracks, spring from winter, beauty from irony.
The planet Earth seems a benevolent seedy place, and how from this abundance of fruit and flowers moved easily about by breeze and bees come the ideas of poor taste, of good form, of appropriate policy and procedure, of social mores?
History is an argument whose occasion has lapsed, the audience mesmerized, hypnotized, and a quick exit of pathos, the persuasion a torn curtain. For Joyce’s Stephen, in “Ulysses,” history was “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Part of that nightmare might include migrations: caused by drought or famine; escape from prejudice and persecution; exile from war; fallout from economic, climate, or technological calamity; eviction notice from landlord; or perceived opportunity, where the grass simply looked greener on the other side of the street. There is an ongoing, small but worldwide, migration of corporate workers essentially homeless from forced relocation every few years, happily scattered about though, rare seeds, often heirlooms.
The nightmare is humanity’s pollinator, its vector, its wind and breeze, river and sea, bee and fly.
Gentrification causes migrations. Local news recently broke of a 127 year old building to be torn down on Belmont, where the century old trolley rail lines occasionally reappear, rising through the wear and tear in the asphalt street. By local standards, a 127 year old building is old, but not so old, maybe, by Parisian standards. Some might see the old Belmont building as having gone to seed, seedy, associated with sleazy; others might see history, a story that cannot be razed or covered. Whether it’s torn down or fixed up, the building’s current occupants will have to find new digs.
But what is seediness? Why is the seedy scorned? Who creates the seedy? And how does seediness move? Who moves toward the seedy rather than away from it? How is life different for those gone to seed from the well bloomed and harvested? Behind the façades, however rich or seedy they might appear, is life in the back of the five star hotel the same as life behind the one star motel? Is five star bitterness five times more bitter than one star bitterness?
One year, in Los Angeles on a boondoggle, we met up with some of the old gang for a couple of days adventuring in the façade capital of the world, Disneyland. We got rooms at a local hotel. The lobby looked friendly, the lounge ready for a beer, the courtyard intimate, the rooms dark but plush. Not five star, but not one star, somewhere in between, we imagined. We settled in for a nap with plans to reconvene later in the lobby and head out for some gumbo at the Blue Bayou.
And then we saw the rats scurrying up and down and all around the courtyard palm trees, arms length from the balcony, plump, healthy looking rats, but did we want to share the night with them? We rustled up the energy to confront the front desk clerk concierge, and checked out free and clear for a clean well lighted place without rats. It did not take long to relocate and we were happily ensconced in a new place apparently fortified against rats. I did not disturb the group’s peace of mind, but I wondered where management might have kept the rats in this new place. In an urban landscape, one is never more that fifty feet or so from a rat. Something is always going to seed, never mind the season.
The classy squirm away from the seedy, the swank from the stink. But they often meet in the noir. The cancer of cynicism does not distinguish the posh from the pinched. Textbook history often sounds like it was written from an airplane circling over a city cleansed of its seeds, and we see nothing of the city’s underground, where we might come face to face with its rats.
“To become imbued with shades of grey, to blend into the drab obscurity of blind spots, to join the clammy crowd that emerges, or seeps, at certain times of day from the metros, railway stations, cinemas or churches, to feel a silent and distant brotherhood with the lonely wanderer, the dreamer in his shy solitude, the crank, the beggar, even the drunk – all this entails a long and difficult apprenticeship, a knowledge of people and places that only years of patient observation can confer.”
We are in Nazi occupied Paris, in Jacques Yonnet’s “Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City.”[i] Most able Parisians have escaped and are on the run, many at the last minute, by train or car, bicycle or walking, long crowded lines moving generally south to southwest, ahead of the advancing Nazi army about to reach Paris. This migration is of course history: dates, names, and numbers dutifully recorded, but for a bird’s eye view of the ordinary trauma, conversations, blunders, hopes, and fears of the average Parisian fleeing the city, many packing as if for a vacation to the Midi, turn to “Suite Francaise,” a recently uncovered account in the form of a novel by Irene Nemirovsky, who died in Auschwitz.[ii]
Yonnet’s book takes place in Paris during the occupation and after. The narrator works for the Resistance, running several missions and establishing connections and communications, always an eye on the patrolling Nazis, living in squalid conditions, associating with all kinds of gone to seed characters with names like “Keep on Dancin’.” The narration reads like a journal or diary.
For the characters in Nemirovsky’s book, the trip out of Paris is a nightmare. Food is quickly scarce, as is petrol, cars are abandoned, train schedules uncertain, everywhere long lines of refugees on the move, unable to carry much, villages and towns empty of provisions, families sleeping out, feeling lucky it’s June and the nights warm, but then again it’s too hot. There’s nothing to drink, nothing to eat. A few enemy planes buzz overhead, explosions heard in the distance, and a few bombs drop near, the strategy uncertain, apparently to take out train stations, rail lines, fuel depots, but there are civilian casualties and injuries. And throughout the telling of it, Nemirovsky focuses close in, describing ordinary people caught unprepared in extraordinary circumstances.
Samuel Beckett and his life long partner Suzanne would have been on the road out of Paris, walking, sleeping out, hiding by day, moving at night. Later, it would be said the roadside scenes in “Waiting for Godot” might have been first suggested to Beckett on his way out of Paris. And James Joyce and his family would have been on their way out of Paris, for Switzerland, Joyce concerned that the war would distract people from reading his latest book, “Finnegans Wake.”
Some of Nemirovsky’s characters describe their predicament as horrible, nothing like it ever seen before, but they are reminded by others they are not the first, nor likely to be the last.
New ethical environments quickly evolve, wrongs are met with a patient retribution, if not justice, both in Yonnet’s occupied Paris among the down and out, the deadbeat and seedy, the sick and infested, the fallen, and in Nemirovsky’s trail of humanity moving away from Paris, away from the city, away from an old life toward something new and unknown.
Back in mid-January, the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha posted to this blog, “The Sultan’s Seal,” a photo essay by the Reuters cameraman Antonio Denti (@antclick on Instagram). Titled “Upstream,” Denti’s essay begins:
“I drove alone from Rome to the Balkans to cover the refugee crisis on the borders of Eastern Europe in September 2015. I saw the physical and human landscape changing slowly. I saw the faces, and I heard the sound of the words. I saw history flowing from Florence to Venice, to Trieste, to the forests of Slovenia, to the Alps and the well kept chalets near Austria, to the flat agricultural peripheries deeper into the former Austro-Hungarian empire, eastwards, towards Serbia and Hungary…”
Denti’s photo essay focuses on the parents and children of the recent migration and refugee crisis. He calls his project a photo diary. It is “terrifying and beautiful.”
[i] Jacques Yonnet, Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City, translated and with an introduction and notes by Christine Donougher. First published in France in 1954, first Dedalus edition in 2006, reprinted in 2009. 280 pages, paperback.
[ii] Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise, a novel, translated by Sandra Smith. Originally published in France in 2004, first Vintage International Edition, May 2007, 431 pages, paperback.