An attempt at flânerie in San Francisco: Part I, The Idea

I started the day restless and angsty: I made the mistake of going online first thing in the morning. My house in San Francisco now has wifi, so I did the standard online circuit of email, Facebook, newspaper sites and blogs before even getting out of bed.

For a variety of reasons, this left me feeling like shit. Facebook made me feel like a low-grade stalker, the news was about the death of Ted Kennedy and election fraud in Afghanistan, and email added to the list of things I have to do.

After eating breakfast I was even more frustrated. I have about 50 pages left in the book I’m reading, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, but I couldn’t decide whether I felt like reading them or if I felt like trying to relax by doing something lighter. Meta-stress about being stressed out was setting in when I had an idea. I would embark on a bit of a project: I wanted to go on a stroll in San Francisco. Like really go on a stroll. Walk through San Francisco, the city of multiculturalism, natural beauty, and tourism; a past of earthquakes, jazz, the beats, and the hippies; and now home to a new generation of hipsters, yuppies, immigrants and going green. I would engage in 21st century flânerie.

I first became interested in flânerie on my plane flight to Paris for my time abroad. On the plane, I read a book my aunt had given me, Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris. The book was mostly a historical and personal account, but White’s allusions to the philosophical concept of flânerie really stuck with me.

Flâner (the verb form of flânerie) can be loosely translated from French to “to stroll.” Edmund White’s book didn’t go into depth about the philosophy of flânerie, but he would occasionally provide teasers into this concept such as, “Why must we always imagine the flâneur as sad?”

Over the course of my time in Paris, I would learn more about flânerie. To begin with, I lived a few blocks from some of the most well-known passages in Paris. Built in the 1830’s, the passages (translated into “arcades”) are covered walkways lined with shops. They are at the heart of the idea of flânerie, a notion first developed by the poet Baudelaire and reexamined by many including the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. The idea is more or less to lose oneself in walking in a city.

So my idea is to try to do some Baudelairian flânerie in San Francisco sometime in the next week. But I want to really do it right, so there’s a lot of theory on flânerie I want to read up on.

We’ll see how this project turns out. This idea sprung out of a desire to not feel stressed out and conflicted, so hopefully I won’t end up feeling out of place on my walk. But even if I do, I think this will still say something about me, flânerie and maybe even our time.

I think San Francisco will provide an excellent backdrop for my experiment. For Benjamin in his analysis of Baudelaire, the social and historical context of flânerie in 19th century Paris is key. I’m thinking of doing the walk in Chinatown or the Mission.

Anyway, stay tuned, and here is a picture I took of one of the passages near where I lived in Paris:


Last weekend, I drove to Charleston, Oregon, a small town on Coos Bay. I was visiting my friend who is studying marine biology there. The drive was four hours long, and I did it without stopping.

On route 42, I passed through a large-scale plywood processing plant. It was complete with 18-wheelers coming and going, smokestacks, railroad tracks, and a large mysterious area where mist was being produced by sprinklers.

Also on route 42, I drove behind a pickup truck with eight middle-aged, barely-clothed Latina women sitting in the back.

In Charleston, my marine biology friend, Liz, was studying across from a smelly shrimp processing facility. She showed me the experiments she was doing on clams and other mollusks, testing how they responded to light stimuli. The experiment was being conducted in a white basin, which was raised to sink level and had about four inches of seawater in it.

Liz told me about the mollusks of her experiment and the various other life forms in the basin. I picked up a large brown starfish. We also looked at crabs, kelp, sea sponges, slugs and snails.

I kept wondering what these crazy life forms ate. Liz told me that a lot of them, especially the smallest ones, simply feed off detritus. Detritus. I had heard the word before; it certainly had a nice sound to it, but what did it mean?

Detritus is the microscopic organic material that is in seawater, Liz explained.

I liked this word. The fancy sounding Latin suffix. The idea of microscopic richness floating around.

For the next few days, “detritus” became our little catchphrase. I used it when I spilt on my shorts, and kept trying to slip it in whenever Liz would tell me about marine biology.

Before I left Coos Bay, Liz and I went to the beach. We walked out to tide pools and saw urchins, starfish and barnacles.

As we walked back along the beach, my thoughts began to associate freely and I found myself thinking about how hard it is to maintain the chemistry of the pool at the camp I worked at last month. Despite good management and a battery of chemicals, algae keeps growing.

I looked out to the waves breaking unevenly, the way they do at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I was feeling pretty relaxed, being on the beach and all, so I was saying what I was thinking, pretty much unfiltered.

“Life started in the ocean,” I said, “and it’s sort of like someone forgot to chlorinate a pool and then all this crazy, dirty shit started growing.”

We laughed.

As I drove back to Ashland, through forests, past the plywood factory again, and up hills the 18-wheelers were struggling on, I drank guava juice I had bought in a convenience store. The juice wasn’t very good—it probably had too much high fructose corn syrup in it. My mind drifted back to detritus.

I had stuck my finger in a sea anemone earlier that day. I knew you could never touch detritus, it is composed of microscopic particles, but still when I felt the anemone’s waterlogged stickiness, I felt this must be detritus’ texture.

There is definitely something to the word detritus. In the way it sounds sophisticatedly dirty. In what it means: if you leave out water for long enough, just letting it react with the oxygen, and the minerals, and the heat, you get microscopic organisms. When these die, you get detritus and eventually the detritus allows for weird things with slimy membranes that grow and if you waited billions of years you get…us.

I finished my guava juice, speeding down a hill on I-5. I thought back to the beach and the uneven waves and the ocean, the spawning ground of detritus large and small, an unchlorinated pool.