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The Joy of the Street

Prague Street 1964.jpg
Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photo
Prague, 1964

I’ve felt at home in cities as diverse and foreign to me as Barcelona, Krakow, Mexico City, and Sarajevo. All I need is a street full of people and I’m happy. Between going sightseeing or watching the natives go about their business, I usually choose the latter. Even waiting on a street corner for someone who is always late is preferable to me than listening to some tour guide. Dickens grumbled in his letters while traveling in the Swiss Alps about the lack of street noise, which he found indispensable for his writing. He needed the labyrinth of London streets and neighborhoods where he could prowl continuously. If one wishes to inform oneself about a country, its people, and its customs, there is no better way than roaming one of its cities and seeing how the rich and the destitute live.

They used to call an idle well-dressed man a flâneur, now a rare and virtually extinct type; an urban explorer and voyeur, equal parts curiosity and laziness. Baudelaire was one. In his “The Painter of Modern Life” he recalls a story by Edgar Allen Poe, called “The Man in the Crowd,” in which a convalescent, having just escaped from the shadow of death, watches with wonder people passing by while seated behind a window of a café. Finally, he rushes out into the crowd in search of an unknown person whose face he glimpsed just for a moment and which greatly intrigued him, and spends the rest of the night pursuing that man through London, only to discover that he is constantly on the move, never resting for long and seemingly in no need of sleep.

Like most of our habits, my love of street life has its origins in my childhood. I was born and grew up in Belgrade, in the very center of what was then the capital of former Yugoslavia. I lived in a four-story apartment building and thought of the street below our window as my playground. I think I was about five when I first started sneaking out of the building to watch other kids play and got yelled at, making the lives of my grandmother and mother even more frantic than they were. (When I was a bit older, I was allowed to go out with a warning not to stray more than a few steps beyond our front door. Of course, I disobeyed and wandered off farther and farther and got caught and yelled at again.) Like other women in the neighborhood and men too, they had a lot to worry about already. The year was 1943 and Belgrade was occupied by the Nazis whose vehicles were now and then seen on our street passing through and whose soldiers stopped and entered some buildings. I don’t recall much from that time beyond some isolated images and brief scenes: three skinny little girls playing hopscotch, a black and white dog that used to follow me around, an old woman feeding crumbs of white bread to sparrows, two women pulling each other’s hair and screaming at each other, a German soldier smiling at me.

It was only a year later, when I was six, that my recollections begin to be more numerous and more vivid. I remember not just the Allied bombings in April 1944 and the liberation of the city by the Russians that October, but spending all my time playing with other kids, playing either in the street or in the ruin of a bombed building right across the street from us. As far as I was concerned, this was as good as life gets. Our parents and relatives were busy or away and our grandmothers were often out trying to find something for us to eat. So, who kept an eye on us in the street? I asked myself recently, and remembered it was the other women in the neighborhood who knew when we were up to no good and came to our rescue. Of course, we hated them butting in and interrupting our fun, like that time when one of the older boys was passing around a German military pistol he found somewhere, but today these women’s worried and caring faces mean more to me than the memory of holding that gun in my hand.

After the war ended, our days of fun were over and we started school. Although I was an okay student, I hated going, but forced myself to do so until the sixth grade when I started playing hooky and eventually stopped going altogether, without my mother knowing. I spent a couple of months roaming the streets of Belgrade until the school finally noticed my absence and sent the cops to inform my mother. While the weather was balmy I could pass the hours I was supposed to be in school easily taking long walks, but once the fall rains and the cold came, I was forced to hide in doorways or go to the movies on the rare occasions when I had the money. Of course, I was lonely and miserable, but was not always bored, and at times almost happy seeing so many strange and interesting things. If anything made me who I am, living like a vagrant in the streets did.

Even today, a kind of exhilaration comes over me roaming an unfamiliar city, a fear of being lost and a secret hope that I am. In the meantime, how much more alive I feel, how much more readily my eyes notice things and how much better my mind and imagination work. Strange cities compel us to look. We take lessons in aesthetics and political science without being aware that we are. We learn about beauty and mystery by giving some overlooked little street and neighborhood the friendship it deserves. In cities that are full of skyscrapers I feel like I am in a movie and, in the older ones, in a theater walking past brightly or dimly illuminated stage sets, mingling with the actors.

Whitman wrote of the crowd on Broadway:

What hurrying human tides, or day or night!
What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!
What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow, stem thee!
What curious questioning glances—glints of love!
Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!

Walking the city streets one becomes a collector of faces, some of which stay with us forever. “Every human being, from the humblest to the most distinguished,” Goethe thought, “carries around with him a secret which would make him hateful to all others if it became known.” Or perhaps—I am inclined to add—would draw our sympathy and even our love, if by some miracle we were to find out what it was.