essay

57702 adrift

The city opens up, somewhat like a book, by the simple act of walking through it. The rhythmic movement of walking accords with the swing of a turning page, dividing movement through space and narrative with an insistent rhythm. Our gaze, and our other senses, detect our changing location and orientation in relation to our surroundings, and we struggle to decipher the urban space, creating meanings. A city is a library, its blocks are volumes, perhaps, its buildings chapters, its shops, offices, and domiciles paragraphs, and the collective story they tell is in the objects that have accumulated there, the architectural encrustations that have congealed over the decades, and the people who dwell and have dwelt in them.

Can you smell the dusty confinement of attics, the chilly, vaguely menacing, breath of dank cellars, the damp and worm-eaten pages of long-stored books, the sour smell of a stack of old magazines that have not been able to stretch themselves open in a great while, like a cleansing yawn after a deep sleep?

The exotic promise of a passageway, half-hidden behind a partly closed door, or a small unnamed square where peculiar streets come together at jarring angles, break the linear trace of our usually somnambulistic meanderings (the path we take may be aimless and even loop back on itself, but time always passes from A to Z). These digressions accumulate, forming little incidents of their own, like sidebars, footnotes, emphatic subheadings, and other structural or expressive contrivances, like italics, or boldface type. Those who can read the various markings of the city well, are able to penetrate its many layers, and experience it, not only in normal three-dimensional space, but also as superimposed variants of itself, like holograms, showing facets of the city’s various conditions in time, like the accumulated layers in a palimpsest.

If, by chance, we find ourselves hurrying down a street on a drizzly autumn afternoon, treading upon the fallen yellow leaves matted on the wet pavement, we note that they emit a tea-like fragrance when their natural tannins mix with the rainwater. We may suddenly come before a prominent opening, a caesura among the unbroken stanza of building façades, overhung by a neon sign that announces the name of a passage. Or perhaps it is one of the numerous “mouse holes” that are unmarked, and mostly unnoticed by any except those who use them as shortcuts from place to place. And, if we obey our urge to drift, to sway from the urgency of our present errands, we may wander into this appendix and lose ourselves, if only for a short while, within the warren of its various converging passages.

We pass into an transitional space, neither inside nor out, and our hearing is intensified as we move from an acoustically “dry” exterior environment, and dive into a well of “wet” reflective surfaces that echo every shoe’s heel strike on the hard floor, and the voice of every conversation. It is an aquarium of ringing corridors, hemmed in by glass shop windows, hard stone, and the comparative closeness of the spaces, sometimes empty, sometimes buzzing with people. The traffic is on foot, the sound and smell of motors and tires on cobblestones recedes, the soft shriek of the tramline is far away. This sheltered imperium, this cloistered byway is like a core sample of the city. It is here in these passages that we feel the city opening its mysteries to us.

Outside, street corners hide small revelations, like the unexpected discovery of the murderer’s identity on turning the page in a detective thriller. Thoroughfares, boulevards, and avenues are expositions of modes of life, glassy and superficial, often their shouting advertisements only barely hide a thin, flaking veneer through the chinks of which can be glimpsed evidence of a past; alluring, mysterious, rich and suggestive. We work to assemble an idea of the past from these peeling layers and tantalizing fragments, filling the empty spaces with our imagination.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 22nd post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“