LE FLÂNEUR sitting at his favorite roost in the Bread & Breakfast Cafe and Bakery, Alpine, Texas. In this scene he is in his usual pose, holding a book and gazing out a plate glass window at an idling Amtrak train, which rests on a track 100 yards away. There is a definite parallel between him and the train: They sit to be seen. (Photo By Linsey Dugan)
©2013 By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: Some of you might recognize this post which was initially published back in September of 2013, so I feel obliged to explain why I am publishing it again.
As you can see from the photo, I—as a type—am the core subject. You might understandably deduce from that clue that here is a case of egoism running rampant, the self begging for more attention. Well, such is not the case. While it is true that I focus on myself, it is the type—the “flâneur”—which is the true subject; I am just playing that role.
The reason I want to publish it again is that I feel this essay did not get the attention it deserves— only three “views” on the stats page in a year and a half. I discovered that fact last weekend, when the third viewer showed up on my stats page. I wondered why so few had bothered. And then it struck me that, since the title “Le Flâneur” is in French and is not a frequently used term, interest would possibly be diminished. So, what I decided to do was add an English translation to the title and republish.
Please give it a read, my friends, because I consider it one of the most humorous, entertaining and informative essays I have ever written—for this blog or anywhere else.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
One of my friends is always calling me names. They are not the good old-fashioned American names like “Son-of-a-Bitch” and…well, let’s leave it with that one. No, he calls me a “solipsist” and an “omphalopsychic”: the first word denotes someone who believes the only true and valuable knowledge is what we know of ourselves; the second word (which you won’t find in a modern dictionary) denotes a “navel-gazer” — someone who spends too much time in introspection. My friend intends neither term as flattery, but I accept them as such.
My friend also calls me a “boulevardier”, by which he does mean to flatter me. It is obviously a French term, and it denotes one, emblematically a male dandy, who “walks the boulevards”…or, in America, the central avenues and streets. A synonym for “boulevardier” is “flâneur”, which I prefer for the obvious reason that it doesn’t take as long to utter.
As for “solipsist” and “omphalopsychic”, I readily concede — as did Socrates and Michel de Montaigne — that the most trustworthy knowledge is what we know about ourselves, both in our outward behavior and, especially, in our inner selves. Everything in the external world is ephemeral and, even when it is directly in front of us, vague…ambiguous. Our inner selves, it is true, also change: our tastes, values, even memories. Nonetheless, they are more measurable and reliable than our social perceptions and our political conceptions. And, often, through introspection we arrive at surprisingly profound insights.
But I would rather talk today about my “flâneur” reputation. It’s not easy being a flâneur in my town…or in any other small town in the U.S. of A., I would imagine. You see, a flâneur’s primary characteristic is that of a stroller…a saunterer…an investigator of the streets. At least, that’s the way the Parisians view their flâneurs. In our American small towns, such ambling gents (or ladies) are more often looked upon as loafers…or worse.
As I mentioned, flâneurs, in the classic sense, are also “investigators”. I mean, just look at the implications of strolling: the habit of the mind, unlike the legs, is not to amble leisurely in the skull; it is, rather, to gauge, to judge. Thus, the flâneur might be observed turning his head after a young lady passes, to see if her rear appearance is as lovely as her front appearance. Or his turning might simply be to discover if she has turned her head as well: if so, a positive sign. But, ordinary, bustling Americans look upon such behavior as soliciting at best or as stalking at worst. Those people are usually married.
Another difficulty facing the American flâneur is the typical design of our towns. While many of them were originally established with town squares, where several inviting shops and cafes could be visited during a leisurely stroll around the central park and courthouse, with its ancient cannon prominently displayed, that Norman Rockwell scene has largely disappeared. The guilty engines of this transformation are, of course, the automobile and the strip mall. We have implanted in our brains the notion that the sole purpose of going into a shop is to buy a predetermined object, preferably during a clearance sale. And we go to eating places to gobble down a pre-cooked meal, again as cheaply as possible. That’s why the supermarkets and the convenience stores have replaced the neighborhood mom-and-pop groceries. That’s why we see more fast food chain franchises than colorful ethnic restaurants. We want to drive in and drive out, not stroll to a romantic café.
Still, I manage to retain some of the attributes of the historical flâneur. I am a man in the crowd but not of the crowd. I maintain my ironical indifference as much as I can. I have my favorite roost in one of our local cafes, where I can gauge the dress, demeanor, and physiognomy of those entering the place, to determine if they are tourists or merely more of the conventional denizens who talk of nothing but motorcycles, football and guns; or, not to ignore the opposite gender, the latest buzz on their iPads, whose daughter is the latest to get pregnant, or how they plan to get their husband to buy a certain color of carpet for the bedroom. Then there is that corner table where the local politicians and their followers gather to castigate their opponents. I used to join the politicos and hangers-on at mid-morning until I finally came to the conclusion that they knew less about themselves than the ladies with their iPads and carpet colors. These clannish discussions usually concentrate at particular tables, as a matter of fact, but I don’t see anything extraordinary in that. It’s a subliminally developed habit that began in grade school, where the children early on developed their cliques and gathered at the same spots on the playground during after-lunch recess.
I have much more fun at a couple of the high-end restaurants: one pretends to an Italian atmosphere, the other to a “cowboy cuisine”. What a curious conflation: “cowboy cuisine”!!! At the latter, I usually settle for the soup of the day, as long as it is not too spicy. Oh, but the waitresses there are mostly pretty and all jolly and all diligent. It is fun to watch and listen to them describe any day’s special delicacies in detail; how they do ripple the terms off their lips! And they are always ultra-kind to me because, I suppose, I am old, walk with a cane, and therefore am not dangerous. I’m just a funny old flirt in their eyes, which is fine with me.
The Italian place is much less trafficked; thus employing only a third of the waitresses one will find at the cowboy cuisine restaurant. There I go for a decent meal of tuna salad over romaine lettuce, or a small pizza.
There is also a nice Chinese restaurant way down the road at the edge of town, way too far for walking; but I drive there occasionally for beef or pork chop suey.
The bars I have already written about (See “Favorite Bars”, published January 31, 2013). I used to be a bar or pub hopper in Dallas and later even here, but the atmosphere of such places has changed radically, and not to my liking. The “music” is too loud and repetitious, the decor is hideously funky and cluttered with TV sets turned on to sports events, and the bar tenders (many of whom are working below their educational levels) are often possessed of sour attitudes.
But, best of all is to sit at my favorite roost in the café and watch passengers disembark off an Amtrak train a hundred yards across the highway and a large parking lot. The passengers stretch and yawn and gaze about to study what burg they are stalled in now and whether to risk venturing across the road to “catch a bite to eat”.
And here I sit, waiting for them.
Le Flaneur, by Paul Gavami, 1842