Wandering the Forbidden & Forgotten

by Bart Plantenga

“The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany.”
—Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

“In a dérive one or more persons . . . drop their relations, their work, and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”
—Guy Debord

I moved to NYC from Ann Arbor, Michigan, in October 1978, with all our earthly possessions piled in, and on the roof of, an orange Datsun 510, traveling hillbilly style with my gal, who I soon learned looked just like Chrissie Hynde. Maybe too much: how much esteem can you manufacture from being the partner of a look-alike? Not much, I soon found out.

Meanwhile, she obeyed traffic signals—red means wait—used the crosswalks, had a desire to sign up for tours, pile into buses, be told what your eyes are seeing. Let us say that we did not work out. Even in her own NYC, she sometimes still uses GPS or Google Maps to ensure her safe arrival.

There are others who, when asked: “Where are we going?” reply: “I don’t know, let’s just go and see where we end up.”

But the streets are getting narrower, straighter, better lit, with better signage, because they must logically lead to enhanced [★★★★] shopping experiences so that every human activity—breathing, drinking, walking, and dreaming—can be monetized.

Paris friend Brad noticed an app that can, while you are walking around Paris, notify you as you approach a photo op—the image of thousands going home with the fruits of the same photo ops led to a laugh of a melancholy octave—sometimes you have to laugh to keep from going insane.

The combing of chaotic streets that sometimes leads to discoveries of an “immense reservoir of electrical energy,” as Baudelaire described it, this aimless wandering “in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite,” shall soon be made too burdensome and replaced with purposeful marching in lockstep behind a tour guide, colorful umbrella raised. Apps, websites, Tripadvisor, audiotours, and Top 10 Must-­Sees—Empire State Building, the Louvre, don’t forget a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge—tell you exactly what you should behold and why, so that you can never be wrong, never enter the wrong bar or enjoy the wrong beverage. The consumers’ gratitude for having their dreams sold back to them in neat little hourly packets is measured in profit.

I noticed this two summers ago: I was walking from the Sidewalk Cafe with a couple of pals after multiple happy-hour beers and came upon a loooooooong line stretching out of an establishment along 6th street. We figured it must be a concert or something “alternative.” There they stood—polite, patient, consulting their phones to preempt disappointment. Indeed, their apps confirmed that they were in the right [hour-­long] line to experience the BEST ice cream [no names please] IN THE WORLD®. BEST as a mantra that insulates you from any self-­doubts that might lead you to uneasy wonder.

Dreams that resist guidance, too, must be monetized for the sake of the economy. This colonization of the unconscious, of our every twitch and synaptical exchange, increasingly hampers our capacity to roam free. Efficient distraction monetized: We know we must leave the grid or die an unsoulful death.

My advice, drift slowly, flânerie, stroll, eyes roaming, unfixed, take a left or right turn off the main shopping arteries and enter a world of new possibilities, leaving behind your tourist on a tour to become the traveler on an exploration. Here, on the neglected side streets, where events seldom happen on cue and history has yet to be sold, we can synch our devices—heart, legs, ambience, and dreams.

But, recently looking through my 2 books, Paris Scratch & NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor, I realized they were not only about wanderings in search of delirious cul de sacs and undiscovered attractions but also a strategy for avoiding the responsibilities of place, relationship, debt, and job [and the contorted logic that wage labor = dignity]. An attempt to channel nervous energy at the end of a tether so that evasion is described as noble, and nerves or OCD are translated into flâneur language and situationist relevance is an identity recuperated from debasement or dysfunction.

My books, in any case, are anti-­guidebooks, offering no advice, no maps, no tips, no addresses, no assurances, leading nowhere but to your deepest needs to explore, discover, be surprised—embrace serendipity and evade the perpetual curation of moments.

I’ve tried to write about how some tourists are confused or disappointed to see that Paris does not line up precisely with the mental overlays they have accumulated via the consumption of dozens of famous black-&-white photos of a Paris long gone.

But sometimes reality accommodates these photographs taken of it by, in turn, imitating and simulating anew the already-­fixed images taken by photographers with a gift for capturing moments.

When you, together with the flâneur [♂] and passante [♀], walk into these “shots” you will believe your senses are tricking you, that an artist has created a set that will allow you to believe the illusion. As if the scene in Montmartre, Place Clichy, or the Sentier are there to enamor themselves to you, seducing, flirting with more than one of your senses of you, the beholder. Balzac described it as “the gastronomy of the eye.”

Here are six snapshots, three each, from Paris Scratch & NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor that describe wandering:

“And now, something remains possible—aimless wandering, the sacred drift. Travel cannot be confined to the permissible (and deadening) gaze of the tourist, for whom the whole world is inert, a lump of picturesqueness, waiting to be consumed…”
—Hakim Bey, “Overcoming Tourism”

208. White Nights
“White nights of quiet stars / Riot chords from my leotard.” Keep walking, keep walking, relentless, repeating, sampled thoughts, shimmering across rivers, sublime in time, a cadence & rhythm to exhaust insomnia, crawl from edges of sight as an immigrant arriving from the spent interiors of the self. Wander, window shop for mirages, browse, drift, roam—stare but do not stand still in attempts to right or recuperate what it is that has been confiscated. Thomas Wolfe roamed Brooklyn’s streets to jumpstart thoughts. Poe took long walks in the woods above 84th street, finding temporary respite from his unhappiness that was directly related to his lack of money & success. But New York is not like Auster’s “inexhaustible space, labyrinth of endless steps,” because buildings now take up so much room there is little left for people to stop & indulge their idling affections.

228. The Blue Shoe
So much sadness rests upon this 1 blue shoe, a loafer of some elegant manufacture. Maybe Italian. In the dusty window of the forgotten shoe store—neglected, never open, not a soul, but not for rent. Pinned to the elastic bridge of this 1 blue shoe displayed upon a slanted shoe riser, a hand-­written sign declares: IT’S EXCITING!” While to a white Weejun hanging from a shoe heel rest display is pinned a sign that declares proudly: “IT’S COOL.” I read the full description of the True Moccasin: White Antiqued Weejun: Black Cush-­N-­Crepe Soles & Heels: Trojan Last. In Stock: 8/13 A; 7/13 B; 6/13 C. & the words transport me & for a while I was not the same. My dreams walk me from 26th all about the city glazed with rain water, wandering incognito. But soon I was the same again & that was disappointing.

233. Overlooking Central Park
I walk uptown a long way in the rain to where CB babysits the young girl while her parents are somewhere in the world doing business. VH is already there & I am soaked. My green hi-­tops are heavy with rainwater. The little girl is already asleep. I strip to my underpants which VH blow-­dries on her knees with me still in them. She places my sopping sneaks & pants on the radiator. I wander around the carpeted penthouse in my blow-­dried underpants & a satin robe that must be the mother’s & I touch vases & sculptures worth thousands of dollars each. We eat delivery-­boy sushi & watch an Audrey Hepburn movie with VH wearing nothing but a knock-­off of Hepburn’s famous skinny black dress, sprawled across the bed from which we can all see Central Park. CB takes photos. What is it about standing in your underwear in a bedroom with 2 women, staring out a window, overlooking Central Park, with a Heineken in 1 hand & a cocktail in the other?

1. Hors-­La-­Loi [Outlaw]
I wandered the dark sloped streets near St. George. Odd patches of fur I’d found in the trash in my coat pocket. & I hear couples linger. Maneuver to grind bone into marrow. Matter into lyrical pique. & fused breaths into whispered intoxication. & there I fondle the rhomboid patch of vulpes vulva, the grey fox. Which “has a much coveted pelt & a brain like a hen on speed.” & in that instant I realize that I could only ever become an intruder into their lives if I can somehow manage to stuff random patches of fur into their pockets with the gesture’s desperation masked only by its audacious flippancy.

64. Accordioniste de La-­Bas [The Accordionist from Over There]
The accordion player wanders the hilly morning rues. When I reach the window I see the glint of sun refract off the accordion to make of the player a mere piece of light. As if sun & sound were intertwined. Enchantment & beyond through “Lili Marleen” like a wandering welder joining the then to the now. A neighbor leans out with bare elbows & throws money at his feet. She has done this before. So I too flick him some change. A light metallic tinkle on cobblestone. The face that holds a dangling cigarette emerges from the piece of light. He tips his beret & churns into a melancholy “Surabaya Johnny” under my window. The very tune I’d been humming in the shower that morning.

278. The Face of Dieu [The Face of God]
In Paris, it’s either God or Goddamned but every time you say “God!” (& you know its just an expression & you know you don’t believe & you’re an atheist, & yet…) every time you say God—a beautiful woman’s face appears & sometimes there are so many startling faces, foreheads, cheekbone structures, smirks, gestures & pouts that no amount of gratitude or expressions of thanks to a temporarily hoisted god will be enough & you will wander with a movie of head shots that will allow you the infinite luxury of forgetting your troubles for an entire afternoon. Beauty & its recognition is its own reward.


bart plantenga is the author of the novels Beer Mystic & Ocean Groove, the short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & the novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man & the wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. Sensitive Skin is hosting 6 short movies illustrating stories from these two books. His books Yodel-­Ay-­Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts. He recently finished the Amsterdam-­Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills with his daughter, Paloma. He is also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & now Amsterdam since 1986. He lives in Amsterdam.

  • Manhattan Linear previously published these Zen Blinks from NY SIN PHONEY IN FACE FLAT MINOR.
  • FREE Paris Scratch soundtrack: Wreck 1198: Paris Scratch
  • FREE NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor soundtrack: Wreck NY*SEEr 1207: An Audiographic Map of NYC Perfect for listening to while reading the book[s]


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