Saturday, July 30, 2016

The city Beneath the City

The Other Paris by Luc Sante

The Matthew Scudder novels of Lawrence Block

Whenever someone stops me on the street to ask me what "neoliberalism" means--you'd be surprised--I suggest that the questioner Google some images of Times Square in the 1970's and then compare the gritty pictures of New York's demimonde (prostitutes, peep shows, pretzel stands, porn theaters, pizza by the slice, bucket-of-blood bars) with today's corporatized/Disneyified version--a mind-numbing onslaught of digital advertising, "cleaned up" by a succession of neolib mayors who wanted "the center of the universe" to cater to consumers rather than to the unwashed and, let's be honest, libidinous masses. "Family friendly," meaning no working girls, boys on the make, nobody nodding in doorways, no black guys with boom boxes--the smell of burnt chestnuts replaced by the smell of money.  The lowly hot dog, slathered in mustard and affordable for all--the great democratic street food of America--now sets you back a five spot at least, and the guy who hands it to you is wearing plastic gloves and not smoking a cigar. In other words, New York, once a place where a person could at least dip his or her toe in the real world has been gentrified and commodified out of existence. That's the meaning of neoliberalism.

New York in the Wagner-Lindsay-Beame era of grit and sleaze (of the best sort) is brilliantly captured in the Matthew Scudder novels of Lawrence Block, among the finest (in my view) writers of noir fiction, a dozen novels set in New York in the iron age before Giuliani and Bloomberg forged the World of Oz.  I want to get to Sante, but just a word about Block, whose books should be better known. His Matt Scudder series follows the life of an alcoholic, ex-cop (he quit the force after accidentally shooting a young Puerto Rican girl), who has moved out of his Long Island home and settled into a hotel room in what was once Hell's Kitchen but is now, appropriately, called Clinton. Scudder's lady friend is a call girl he met while trolling the streets around Times Square. Scudder isn't a detective, but he survives by doing favors for various people, including the ominious Mick Ballou, an Irish mob figure who is among the more interesting bad/good guys in all of genre fiction. Scudder walks around the city, attends two or three AA meetings each day, and with minimal help from NYPD, puts some very bad people in jail. But the finest part of Block's books, the irresistible sections, are his descriptions of that old New York. On a walking tour of Hell's Kitchen a few years back I looked for Scudder's hotel and for Armstrong's, his favorite watering hole. Both are still there, but spruced up. I went so far as to have a bourbon and coffee in Armstrong's Pub (Scudder's drink of choice before the black-outs got too bad), but it was no good--there were yuppies and ferns and a bartender who didn't want to talk.  Try When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes, really.

I loved that older, gritty New York; the new one, not so much. I never knew the old Paris, the one about which Luc Sante, our poet/scholar of the underside of urban life writes so brilliantly in The Other Paris. I've read everything I can about the Paris of Baudelaire and du Beauvoir, of Henry Miller and Hemingway, of Dabit and the witty Elaine Dundy. But the world opened for us by Sante is of an altogether different sort; perhaps only Henry Miller's wonderful Quiet Days in Clichy (my favorite of his books) comes close to evoking the city hidden with the City, the world of the underclass, the proletarian subbasement of a wealthy world-class metropolis, the wine bars and bistros and cafes and bordellos and back alleys--flâneurs and prostitutes, faded dandies, transvestites, and brawlers. 

The great historian of the rich life of Paris was of course Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project presents an unrivaled--rich and deep--inventory of the great city, especially of its inner life. But Luc Sante has done something original, and perhaps even more enlightening in The Other Paris. Sante, whose Low Life is a great accounting of 19th century New York, has performed a similar service for those who would know the "low life" of Paris--he's opened up neighborhoods and previously closed doors, and shown us lives that reveal a Paris quite different from that of the Michelin guides. As a bonus, he's also filled the text with hundreds of black and white photographs. 

"The dance halls of Montmarte were by that point [when the Impressionists began to paint them] as showcases for prostitution, but there were dance halls in most other neighborhoods...In Charonne stood the Bal des Lilas, known as the Bal des Punaises (cockroaches or bedbugs), which had, tucked away behind the orchestra, a bench reserved for women too drunk to dance, and those who lacked shoes..."

The sections on little known artists and artistes are brilliant: here's Frehel, the great chanteuse who died in 1951--"Her charisma and strength of personality, in addition to the map of her life in her face--her big eyes and full lips remaining as proof of lost beauty under the palimpsest--got her cast in movies, sixteen of them, mostly in the 1930's...In her last years she sold vegetables on the street. Her landlady said, 'She scared me. She was like a bull.' In 1950 a group of young admirers that included Jacques Yonnet [author of Paris Noir: The Secret Life of a City] and Robert Girand, working-class poet and journalist] got her to perform one last time...a year later she was dead in Pigalle."

There are hundreds of anecdotes like this one, of forgotten singers, of poets and painters not on the 'A' list, of dance halls and cafes now vanished to make way for offices and apartments. My favorite chapter, "Insurgents," surveys a territory unknown to me--the underground political/criminal history of France's capital, from the Commune (Louise Michel) to the notorious career of Edouard Carouy and the gang of which he was a part, a group immortalized (after a fashion) in Emile Michon's Un peu l' ame des Bandits (A Little of the Bandits' Soul)--apparently no relation to Magritte's painting of the same name.

And who cares? A forgotten New York, a Paris that is hardly present. Perhaps the point of reading Sante's marvelous hommage is to be reminded that the city, far from being a place of commerce, a monument to the egoism and elitism of the marketplace, was for most of its history simply a place where people of all kinds lived and worked and loved and died. In other words, a democratic and egalitarian space where one could hardly avoid rubbing shoulders with different sorts of people. Of course, that still happens, but in the city within the City the rubbing took a more intimate form, defined in fact the lives of citizens in a way that seems no longer to be the case. 

George Ovitt 7/29/16, revised 8/1/16

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