“Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes” —Walter Benjamin
When I was in college, I took a class on crime noir, and was introduced to the concept of the flâneur, from the French verb “to stroll,” described by Baudelaire as “a person who walks the city in order to experience it.” The professor argued that the gumshoe—the etymology seems to be murky, but the connection to walking is irresistable—is a professional flâneur, and that our attraction to the genre, besides the crackerjack plots, is the panorama of urban society, from high to low, vice to virtue. Unlike most of us, who circle within various radii of a neighborhood, or a class, or a profession, the flâneur catches glimpses of it all. (Granted, it’s more of a European thing; part of the reason hardworking Americans embraced the private dick is that he’s a flâneur but not a slacker.)
So what’s a flâneur to do now that people don’t stroll like they did a century ago? Drive a cab, I reckon.
That’s part of what I love about Dmitry Samarov’s blog, Hack, and the forthcoming book of the same title (full disclosure: I’m thanked in the acknowledgements, though as a function of being a fan), and excited that he’s our second Off the Grid contributor.
Actually, panorama is the wrong word. A panorama is fixed, but the nature of the flâneur is motion, which is why it’s a creation of urban life. The nature of the writing I’m steeped in, journalism, tends to about fixing something down, explaining, answering or exhausting all the questions. It’s useful, but it’s also something of a conceit: light’s both wave and particle, and traditionally, journalism is mostly interested in the latter. As our last Off the Grid contributor (how’s that for narrative continuity?), Alex Kotlowitz, put it after running into a hale, stable woman he’d reported on years ago and given up on as a young victim of her community:
I think of this story often, as a celebration—and as a cautionary tale, against what the Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”: the danger of thinking that people have a single narrative….
One way to avoid the danger of a single story is to continuously follow up, but that has its limits, or to accidentally stumble upon a subject years later, like Kotlowitz did. Another is to acknowledge the mystery, which is damn hard to do: to know when you’ve captured something real, and when what you see is a mirage. And it’s hard in any field, not just writing: “Another problem is that if you look at enough graphs, you’ll eventually find one with a pattern just by chance…. If you take a fake pattern and make people think that it’s a real pattern, that’s called ‘overfitting the data.’” It’s a human flaw, one that gives us everything from numerology to phrenology to Alfonso Soriano’s contract.
I’ve chosen the excerpts from his blog because they speak to Samarov’s fine discretion as an observer and a writer. I suspect—and here’s your example of potentially overfitting the data—that it comes in part from driving a cab, experiencing the flow of the city professionally the way most of us do by necessity or in our spare time. And, in part, from his training as a painter (a couple favorites: “The Only White Cab Driver in Chicago,” the “The Old Guy,” and “Flowers”), where everything is a matter of knowing where to paint the lines and what to leave to the imagination.
1. Christmas in a Cab: “Seems her boyfriend chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus by getting lit and smacking her around. She points to the cop cars clustered down the street, ‘We were having a good time. All I asked him to do was to stop drinking,’ she’s headed to her office to spend the night on the couch. ‘Luckily my business has one.’ Still in shock, she thanks me profusely and over-tips extravagantly as if to regain some control over a situation that’s knocked her on her ass with no warning whatsoever.”
2. The Fellas: “He waves me over, then lets her in first, mid-argument. ‘Guarantee you you’ll be bitching about those heels within the hour.’ He’s in scuffed-up jeans and a ball cap while she’s dressed to kill. Instead of telling her how good she looks he remains on the attack. Doing otherwise would be to admit that he left the house without a second’s thought to his appearance. He’s already got her so why bother with that shit, right?”
3. Amateur Hour: “The people that come out on New Year’s Eve don’t know what they’re doing. They stay home all year, then choose this one night to get dressed up and drop a fortune to toast the coming year, while wedged into some bar they’ve never been to before, amongst a thousand strangers. They’re not used to drinking and invariably overdo it; cab drivers often suffer the consequences of their miscalculation. New Year’s Eve is the busiest night of the year for us, but we really have to earn it.”
4. New Year’s Eve: “She introduced herself by name and also, to break the ice, ‘Not to brag on myself but I just love to love and the way the world is these days, they just take and take and take,’ she was 35 and on her way to meet a much younger man (this last part confided in a sort of stage whisper). A stop at the liquor store for champagne and then a cigarette lit just as we pulled up to the spot, ‘Shit, can you go around the block? He doesn’t know I smoke and I really need it to get through this.’ We idled around the corner where she puffed away expounding on Obama, on-line dating, and God-knows-what-else. She was the kind to use your name and make lots of eye contact leaving the impression that techniques were being employed to gain advantage. ‘I hope you get everything you ever wanted in life,’ she wished, then crossed the street…”
5. Vampire Hours: “The odd types who’ll venture out on these nights when they should really stay in, just don’t know any better. The ones that aren’t on urgent missions to or from their local tavern, want things that never quite add up.”