I’m always seeing my father among the gaggles of urchins who invariably garnish old pictures of Quai de la Batte or Ruelle Bodeux or the Trô Navai. It seems that every time a postcard photographer disposed his equipment in the working-class districts of Verviers, the factory town in southern Belgium in which both he and I were born, three or eight or twenty kids would materialize and stand in front of the lens, poking each other and making faces, and he would have the task of herding them into a picturesque grouping slightly to the side. Adults are infrequent, and in the bourgeois neighborhoods there are usually no visible humans at all.
My father always seems to be in those crowds of rascals, somewhere toward the middle, the smallest kid but clearly a ringleader, effortlessly exuding personality. Never mind that all the pictures I am looking at were taken fifteen or twenty years before his birth, and that Quai de la Batte and Ruelle Bodeux and the Trô Navai had all been erased by progress by the time he was old enough to run around outdoors unsupervised. The earliest pictures I have of him are in the same spirit; they are in fact mostly postcards, as are nearly all the pictures in my album between the age of the formal cabinet card and that of the snapshot, and they were taken by street photographers.
In the earliest one he is no more than a year and a half, maybe two, his blond hair in a raggedy pageboy, wearing a one-piece garment that looks like jersey but was inevitably wool, holding on to his sister Armande’s hand. She wears a flounced dress that may have been white and proclaims itself unmistakably as Sunday best, with midcalf boots, possibly buttonhooks. She’s nervous and doesn’t know how to pose: mouth screwed up, shoulders hunched forward, free hand pinned by the exposure in midcrawl along a flounce, resting all her weight on her left leg, which slants so far right it appears she will soon have to cross the other leg over so as not to topple. I recognize my father by his stare, already then skeptically alert, prepared for the worst, not declaring himself but maintaining reserve. He is a little waif, un petit bout d’chou, with the eyes of a grizzled and unflinching witness to the spectrum of human folly and deceit.
They are standing on a diamond-cobbled pavement in front of some official or at least prosperous-looking edifice with deep windowsills and, right behind Armande, a cavernous rectangle formed by the eyebrow of a basement window looking up from its underground business. It is manifestly not their house. My father grew up in a tenement on Rue de Mangombroux, a narrow thoroughfare that appears to wind endlessly, in part because for much of its length it is unencumbered by side streets. It presents a solid panorama of elderly three-story houses, cyclically unspooling like the landscape that …