I called him Paul, after the hermit monk of the desert, because he lived in a neighborhood without neighbors. I had to give him a name. I couldn’t keep thinking of him as the guy on the 10th floor with the olive trees on his balcony, although that pretty much sums up what I knew of him. Well, that and how sexy he looked, even from a distance.
I wanted to find a way to talk to him. It was one of those now-or-never occasions, as when strangers exchange glances from opposite platforms of the subway.
Except there wasn’t any way to talk to him. He was on his balcony and I was perched on another a couple of blocks away. Between us lay two elevators, a warren of narrow streets and a panel of doorbells with the names of strangers.
I first saw him on a visit to the city’s Biennale. It was being held that year at the old trades school, a stately if now dilapidated building in the Central Market district. I had reached the end of the exhibition on the very top floor of the building. To my surprise it afforded a remarkable and, given the absence of other publicly accessible buildings of this height in the area, rare view of the city.
In a city of hills, there are many buildings with beautiful views, but there is none that looks at the city from quite this angle, none that frames so brilliantly parkland and antiquity, and none that encompasses so many centuries of history in one single vista. The view was interrupted only in a few places by the pinnacles of a dozen and a half of so concrete-slab buildings in the area. Paul lived in one of them.
He was one of the canopy people, or so I call them, the people who live on the top floors of these ugly buildings with their privileged views. I’ve spent half my life in this city and I never knew that they existed. No one writes about them. I imagine they are glad for that. The last thing they want is to draw attention to themselves. I’m not even sure they’re supposed to be living there, since the buildings are probably zoned for commercial use, though the truth is, nobody’s checking.
The buildings they live in are much taller than the modest almost makeshift structures that fill the neighborhood, sometimes nine or ten stories, a daring move in a city often visited by earthquakes. They should never have been built that high, of course. It was only the greed and unscrupulousness (and strategically placed connections) of the property owners that enabled these eyesores to ever be constructed.
The buildings were erected in the post-war construction boom to plans drawn by engineers to maximize total square footage. With their dimly lit squat lobby and pitted terrazzo floors, the boxy two-person elevator and railing-less back stairs, they’re depressingly similar, as if they all came from the same speculator’s catalog of fixtures.
There are perhaps only a dozen-and-a-half or so of these buildings in the area. You don’t notice them at first since the top floors are not always visible from the street. They were built like steeply terraced rice fields; the higher up you go, the more deeply recessed the apartments, a way of ensuring some light for floors below and a balcony for the ones above.
The topmost floors, where the canopy people live, are more like outposts than homes, narrow rectangles of living space set behind spacious verandas. In most cases, you can only see one of these apartments if you are looking out from a similar one a couple of streets away. Like the members of a secret sect whose distinguishing marks are known only to the initiated, only the people who live in these apartments know of each other’s existence. And now I knew, too.
Once you’re up in one of these apartments you can spot the spaces occupied by fellow colonists. The signs are easy to pick out: blinds or curtains on the windows, the occasional awning, the plants on the balcony. But mostly it’s the absence of the junk that litter the balconies of the floors below, the broken desk chairs and rusted air-conditioners of offices that closed up years ago, evidence of a flight that shows no sign of abating.
The canopy people are like rootless epiphytes resting in the cradle of tree limbs. Entire floors below them now lie vacant. Most of the sweatshops that these buildings once housed on their lower floors have now closed, victims of even cheaper imports from abroad, some of which, ironically enough, are now displayed in the showrooms of the Chinese trading companies that have opened up on the lower floors of the same buildings. Other occupants, the small-time wholesalers and importers who had their warehouses and showrooms here are leaving, too, succumbing to the economic malaise of a six-year long recession.
The streets below have an ecology all their own, and the canopy dwellers are not part of it, though they cannot but be touched by it. As they return home in the early evening, they are grazed by the sounds of song and news in Bengali and Arabic and Chinese, as if passing through a strange anteroom of displacement and exile. If their homes are outposts, they are sentries in a contested frontier.
They have become resigned to the change in their neighborhood. Some welcome it. The Egyptian and Chinese grocery stores are the only ones left. And the tiny cafés, the barber shop, the halal butcher, even the calling centers—they are eyes on the street at least, enough perhaps to keep some of the addicts away. They are riggings of a sort, and without them the neighborhood would be slowly torn apart. If the neighborhood revives, they will have a part in it. But it will not happen without women.
Now it is a neighborhood without women. You don’t notice it until the Central Market and the shops around it close. Then the pensioners, bargain-hunters, and gourmands who shop here depart for other quarters of the city, leaving behind them the young South Asian and Arab men who have found lodging in the district’s rooming houses and cheap hotels. The neighborhood takes on the air of the camps of railway workers or miners, a funk of transience and exile.
For the rest of the month that the exhibition was still on, I kept returning to the old trades school. I went back to revisit some of the works that had interested me on my first visit but I wanted, too, to catch another glimpse of Paul. It embarrassed me to be doing so. I felt like some embedded but invisible ethologist watching a troop of very shy primates and hoping for his favorite to appear.
I didn’t see Paul during the first of my return visits. But I constructed a person nonetheless from the clues his apartment gave me, as we sometimes do at the supermarket with the groceries of the person in front of us in the checkout line, though there was little to go on. There were the olive trees, of course, carefully pruned and resting in large terra cotta pots, all the same size. He had installed a windscreen at the edge of the balcony to protect the plants and had set out a long wooden trestle table and chairs. The outside walls of the apartment had recently been given a coat of cream-colored paint. A man of order and foresight, a man who took care of things. A good man, I thought.
Over the course of my visits I noticed other residents of these aeries. I saw two men walk out of an apartment onto a broad trellised balcony on which they had tried without much success to train bougainvillea for shade. A few blocks to the south I saw a painfully thin woman with straggly blond hair sitting on her balcony, smoking and scribbling in a notebook. Another day I noticed an old couple, pensioners I’m sure, having coffee on their balcony. I saw them again one afternoon a few weeks later on the street, dressed as if they had gone to church. They could probably move elsewhere, not to a much nicer area, but at least out of here. But they don’t. They are like the residents of a flood plain battered by storms. They know the waters will rise again but they refuse to leave. This is home, even when it is no longer the home they once knew. In this way they are not all that different from the men from Dhaka and Cairo whom they pass by on the street. Or from me. For I. too, am an immigrant for whom the city is never entirely home but at the same time a home I do not want to leave.
I saw Paul on one of my last visits to the school. I am sure he saw me, but by the time I resolved to raise my arm to wave to him, he turned his gaze away from me and then went back into his apartment. Perhaps he was just scanning the clouds on the horizon for signs of rain.
If I were a more daring man I would have dashed down the stairs and ran over to his apartment building—by now I knew where it was—and rang as many bells as it took to get me in and up to his door. I would have thought of something to say as he opened the door. I was writing an article on the residents of the Central Market district, yes, that is what I would have said if I were a more daring man.
The title of the post is taken from Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Baudelaire’s poem To a Passer-By: “The delight of the urban poet is love–not at first sight, but at last sight.”
Image: From André Kertész’ series, On Reading. Latin Quarter, Paris