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The Built-In Breakdown

Chapter 4 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles

Our cities have become a-creative. Once, they could offer promiscuity and isolation in the proper proportions. Moise Kisling, one of the Montparnasse painters of the Twenties, lived across the street from my Paris address. He could wander to the Dôme on Carrefour Vavin, meet his friends, drink with the others of the generation that funneled into Paris all the way from Poland to Mississippi; then he only had to walk a few hundred feet to be back on the bywater of our street where he could work to his soul's content. Not any more, Moise, not any more; by the time you reach the Dôme these days you need a stiff drink just to get over the trauma of getting over Boulevard du Montparnasse. I don't think you could get much work done in that studio of yours, either, you'd be worried too much about paying for it. Studios in Montparnasse are not for artists any more, they make great places for displaying objects by artists. Only the truly creative people of our time can afford them, people like psychoanalysts and real-estate agents, who can create money directly without going through any intermediate phases like canvas or stone.

So, Moise, I have to leave our street whenever I have any real work to do, anything that involves more than just going through the motions of work, more than repeating with but a slight variation what I had done the day or the year before. I have found a place in Brittany where it rains so often that the grass stays green all year long and the Parisians come only in July and August. You just keep going west from Montparnasse, out of the belt of wealthy suburbs that has its buckle on Saint Cloud bridge where the Autoroute de l'Ouest begins. You leave behind the Beverly Hills communes for film stars around Montfort-l'Amaury about twenty miles out, and after that the sailing is almost clear. Paris has smeared south towards Lyons and the Mediterranean; the high-speed trains run that way and so do the high-speed cars along the Autoroute du Sud. But going west towards Brittany, the Autoroute de l'Ouest peters out well before Montfort. There are forests and farms. When you go west by train, the country quickly becomes compartmented by hedgerows after the plains around Chartres. By automobile, the way can be almost as lonely, there are still roads that were used by the postriders and the stagecoaches. I take them to go to Lanloup on the Breton coast, where the words I have lost in Paris come back to me.

A few years ago, I might have gone to Lanloup by train. I could have taken an express to Saint-Brieuc, then the narrow-gauge branch line that ran down the coast. Brehec by the sea was a station for Lanloup a mile-and-a-half inland, the viaduct of the abandoned narrow-gauge line still stands there. It was built by giants, no doubt, the midgets who replaced them are not even up to the task of demolishing it. I might have come by the steam train that screamed on the viaduct like a gull over the cliffs, whistling with its two eaved passenger cars, a brake van, and two or three freight cars. I could have got off the train and taken a trop up the hill to the Duvals' café where I rent rooms right across the road from the Lanloup church. There I can work in the Seventies, it is the kind of place that my street in Montparnasse must have been for Kisling in the Twenties. I once arrived there on an Easter Sunday. I had to come by car because the bus that plies the corrugated roller-coaster track of a highway from Saint-Brieuc could not have carried my two bicycles. I wasted no time breaking out a bike and coasting down a road that runs from Lanloup to the sea through a valley carved out by the stream Kerguen. There were once seven mills on that stream, only one is left and it grinds no more.

On the beach at Brehec, just on the downstream side of the railroad viaduct, there was a sheen of wet sand in the artificial cove formed by a breakwater built many years ago to protect fishing craft. Most of the fishermen are long gone. In winter, there is only one working boat left in Brehec harbor, the Marcel Augustine, named after the parents of the two catlike young men I see aboard when they moor in the middle of the cove and scull a dinghy to the foot of the breakwater with a few crates of scallops.

The cove was empty on that Easter Sunday morning, it was awaiting the play-boats of the summer yachtsmen and the dinghy sailors. Except for two or three cafés, nothing was open in Brehec. The summer houses were shuttered against a miraculous Easter Sunday sun that sent me walking shirtless across the wet sand. The hotels were battened down for the winter, their windows not only shuttered but blinded by sheets of fiberboard nailed over them. I sat on the beach; I had half an acre of sand around me to blot my ink, but the sun and a breeze from the West dried it as soon as I wrote, dried it as fast as a ballpoint. I got back up the hill, pedaling against the grade and the trickle of the Kerguen, just in time to see and hear the twin bells of the Lanloup church calling the village and the countryside around for high mass, their clappers lolling like tongues inside their cupped brazen mouths.

Except for July and August, one is high and dry in Lanloup, safe beyond the reach of urban sprawl. It was not easy to find Lanloup. Nearly every other place I sought had been tainted by the car city. Mere distance from downtown is not enough protection, the car people can sprout wings and flutter off to the Bahamas or the isle of Elba. I once did a piece of work in a village on the Seine near Fontainebleau. A hundred years ago, there was no one there except a few farmers and a boatyard where wooden river barges were built. During the Twenties, it saw an epidemic of great summer houses, it looked something like the North Shore of Long Island except for the modest moat of the Seine instead of the mighty Sound at the feet of the houses. Then, after the war, it went back to the pre-car era, not much was heard except the river barges hooting for the lock in the early-morning fog. But the tide kept spreading out from Paris; it swallowed up Corbeil down the river; on the other side of the city it puddled east to overwhelm the Marne valley; finally it reached the village where I had once been able to work. Old country inns were either sold off as apartments or refurbished with plate-glass doors and thatched roofs. The village was not crowded, it was even emptier than it had been before, but I could not take my ease there any more. It was no longer a place to work; it will soon lose its identity, it has only a river and a rim of forest to protect it as a community from the car.

The car distorts communities just as it bloats and misshapes individuals. It literally deforms cities. I realized this a few years ago when I saw Leningrad for the first time. My eyes could not adjust to it, something was awry, it took me a while to realize what it was. For the first time in my life, I was looking at a classical city from head to foot. Leningrad was almost carless, it had not been amputated below the knee; from roof to street, I could take it all in. Every other old city I know is washed over by the tin flood, their monuments stand on a mobile junkyard. The car erodes these cities, it gnaws away at their feet, it throttles their windpipes, it consumes them. It must feed on them to grow, it must grow to keep producing its rewards for those who make and fuel it. That is why the car cannot solve any urban or suburban transportation problem. It is the problem. It must inevitably lead to the discarding of cities, for they are frightful places to park cars. Inevitably, too, we must have the exodus to the suburbs, frightful places to park people, those consumer parks where productive work is taboo, where there is nothing to do but drive and buy.

The leapfrogging starts, the suburb becomes the city, more cars are needed to get away from it, more roads are needed to carry the cars. Another chunk of the rural landscape is bitten off, chewed, digested in the intestinal tract, spat out as tracts. There is a premium on change, there is money to be made in tearing down and building anew. It is the car that is the prime mover of change; we use it to go places, to go from the places that it has made unbearable. They are left behind to become slums, no, ghettos, a new word that implies no chance to escape, not a stepping stone but a tombstone. The old communities in the United States are being wiped out and the new ones aborted. In Europe, an urban tissue constructed cell by cell over millennia is being shredded in a few moments for a new race of courtiers who demand of their cities only convenient parking during the week and an easy exit on the weekends.

Industry goes along with the exodus. IBM forsakes New York for Westchester, American Can runs to Connecticut. According to Robert Cassidy, a city planner writing in the New Republic, St. Louis lost forty-three companies to the suburbs in 1970 and, in two years, Boston found that seventy-five had gone. These are all clean industries, of course. It is the headquarters that move out, the hindquarters are left in the old urban industrial holes. These are executives and secretaries, they are clean livers, the only thing dirty about them is the cars that they drive. Yet that should be enough, as I know from my acquaintance with Paris. A canary could hardly survive in those parts of the city where the only activity is shopping and looking for a place to park. I'm not much on wine but I'm a pretty good air-taster and it's hard not to inhale on a bike. The worst breathing in Paris is not around the industrial north and east anymore but in the plush west, that ghetto of the rich, the festering avenues that move the tin carriage trade through Passy and Auteuil. Greenwich and Larchmont, take note, there' more than just money moving up from New York, the muck is coming along with it.

Mass transit does not stand a chance when it is placed against this kind of competition. As someone has pointed out, it must buck the laws of geometry. The farther you move from the center of a circle, the farther you must travel along the periphery and in those interstices the automobile multiplies. The commuter railroads of the nineteenth century were responsible for the hatching of our urban dinosaurs but, at least, they gave the countryside a chance, offering breathing spaces between stations and farmland between lines. The car butters the goo evenly over the whole circle, a homogeneous layer that cannot be scooped up in big enough quantities to make public transit worthwhile.

The automobile was never intended for cities, it is self-defeating there. In limited numbers, it could offer quick, convenient house-to-house door-to-door movement of goods and services, perhaps as quick and convenient as our great-grandparents enjoyed with horse cars, hansom cabs, and brewery wagons. The mass car breaks down in the city because there is a built-in breakdown. It is like the clowns' cars that fly apart at the end of the circus act. We build more freeways for it when it runs out of roads, then we run out of air.

Yet that is the saving grace of the full-power wheelchair in its present form. The crud over our heads is the ceiling of our automobile population. Far worse would be the pollution of the nonpolluting car. Then we could sextuple-deck the Long Island Expressway, shuffle off to Buffalo at the end of a day at the new World Trade Center down at the already drained Battery... but this is just science fiction. You can't burn oil without polluting and when cars stop running on oil, there is a chance that oil will stop running us and we will stop living on energy borrowed form geological time with no intention of repayment.

Since this energy is not ours, we feel no need to conserve it, we throw it away. Perhaps the throwaway car was the start of throwaway living. Never before have goods of such importance lost their value so quickly. Perhaps it is because they destroy rather than create. Creative work does not depreciate, it appreciates all the more in our car time as it becomes more and more scarce.

It is in moon travel that one finds the fastest depreciation of all. This is the ultimate projection of the car-travel society. There is instant depreciation; the booster stages and the fuel vanish, only the capsule arrives (with the relative residual value that my '47 Chevy would have today). Perhaps we get into trouble when our tools, our goods, do not live as long as we do. A house does, a trolley car or a locomotive or a steamship used to be good for a generation or two. The car cannot last because, it consumes itself as it consumes energy.

Sooner or later, it consumes us, mentally as well as physically. The car bestows power without responsibility. The airline pilot, the steamer captain, the locomotive engineer control much more power, but their every move is governed by skills that take years to acquire and rules that fix responsibility in every foreseeable circumstance. Not we in our cars; we get the power for nothing, we pay insurance companies to take the rap, thereby giving them a swollen role in shaping our world. The car puts all of us on horseback we can multiply our own speed and power as our predecessors could only by riding fleet horses, again almost a professional skill and certainly one that demands much more physical and psychological effort than guiding an automobile after a few hours of lessons.

So we are all men on horseback. In the United States, the man on horseback is the cowboy, a workingman in working clothes. His image has covered the world, he is imitated in Les Corrals du Far West on the banks of the Yonne or in dude ranches behind Mandelieu on the road to Cannes. His were the free and easy ways of Americans on horseback, they are transposed into the manners of the car driver in America. He gives the right of way to the weak, he stops to offer his help at a sign of trouble, it is the old fraternity of the cowboys on the plains. The Americans invented hitchhiking, a form of instant hospitality and generosity. Signs of such behavior are found throughout the United States, even in a city like New York. Scoffers (and I know there are many) are advised to try crossing a street or riding a bicycle in such cradles of civilization as Paris or Rome.

In mother Europe, the man on horseback has different meaning. His power is political, he is a military man, Napoleon crossing the Alps, General Boulanger saving France from democracy, all the grand butchers of Europe's wars leading their pedestrians to slaughter. There is a social Grand Canyon between these horsemen and the muddy manure-spattered European cowherd whom no one would dream of emulating. Still, the nearest thing I ever saw to the Wild West on either side of the Atlantic was a farm boy in the upper Marne valley. He was driving the herd home and riding the last cow, holding her between his thighs, riding bareback, no reins, no hands. I was with my dear friend, the photographer, I wanted her to get a picture, but the light was falling fast, faster than we could cycle over to the pasture. The cowboy was cooperative; he rode his cow almost into the ground, but the exposure meter said no and we had no flash. It was just as well, that cow would have jumped over the moon with the boy on her back if we had focused lightning on her from the big black round eye that always sends the cows cowering. The cowboy told us he could ride only one cow in the herd, the others weren't used to him. He would be glad to ride a cow any time for the photographer if she came back to take his picture. He told her this in all sincerity, his eyes looking at her haunches the way he must have sized up the cow's before he took his flying leap to mount them for the journey home.

He was the king of that pasture of his, he stood over us on our bicycles, he commanded power just as the farmers do on their wagons hitched behind the heaving buttocks of a Percheron on the roads of Brittany. There are not many left, but it is a fine sight to see such a rig plodding along, the big horse in front, the man standing behind and, on the wagon bed, a calm German shepherd dog. Horses survive here and there on French farms. In 1970, I saw an elderly couple hitching theirs to a buggy outside the church in Honfleur after the market had closed. They only had three miles to go from their farm to the market; the children used to drive the truck to town but now they were grown and gone. The parents were too old to drive, so they let the horse drive.

None of this interests the Parisian. His origins were in the provinces, he or his parents spent years losing their accents, changing their manners, forming and conforming. The cowherd is not his folk hero. When he drives a car, he does not identify with the peasant. He becomes a military man on horseback, he must swoop to Moscow, he is invincible at Austerlitz. Bottle him up in a traffic jam on Elba and he rides up from Cannes, rallying the country to his banner, averaging a hundred thirty-eight kilometers an hour all the way to Waterloo. The infantry is expendable, a whiff of grapeshot is all that is needed to scatter the mob, the unmounted rabble. He does not clean and water his horse; that is for the groom, the hostler, the mechanic, the rabble on foot. He has the double prestige of the horse and the carriage (in French, voiture, the same word whether the vehicle is driven by two horses or four cylinders) grants him isolation.

He does not come into contact with the street, his sedan shields him as the sedan chair once did. What is occurring in the city reaches him only through glass. Anything between his point of departure and his point of arrival is an obstacle that should be cleared from his path. Since one of the characteristics of an automobile is an infinite choice of itineraries, one man's goal must necessarily be another man's obstacle. The consequence is that great swatches of city and countryside are flattened. The tall plane trees that made travel in France a journey through a bower were removed from main roads because drivers kept running into them at eighty miles an hour. Instead of a speed limit, a tree limit was adopted. That ended a delightful transition era of motoring when the car had not yet murdered all that it touched. I admit, there was an exhilaration about coming out of a mile of hot yellow wheat in August, then diving into the plane trees, the shade bathing the road between the trunks, the cool air massaging your face through the open windows. The early age of driving is like the early age of smoking; the pleasure is keen, one can do anything, one becomes hooked and so hopelessly that one cannot stop when the side effects start to catch up.

I keep on talking about France because, in a way, this country has offered me the same living laboratory that the Veterans Administration hospital provided the scientists studying the relationship between smoking and cancer. While it pioneered the automobile, it did not experience the mass car during the Twenties and Thirties. It lay somewhere between the United States of the Tin Lizzy and the Soviet Union where film audiences gaped at The Grapes of Wrath, not because the poor Arkies and Okies were forced to move, but because they were able to move in cars. When I first came to France in 1944 and landed in Normandy, American jeeps and trucks were the only motor vehicles around except for a few cars that had been rerequisitioned by the Resistance after they had been liberated from the Gestapo. They ran on gas generated by burning wood in a big furnace carried outboard on a fender. We came with our militarized traffic jams and the French watched us in amazement.

When I returned in 1948, only surplus jeeps and trucks were left and French cars were so rare that they could be bought new only by paying for them in dollars which were even more rare (this was a LONG time ago). Paris was a city that could be taken in from a sidewalk café or from those rolling sidewalk cafés, the open platform buses that snorted through streets empty except for periodic demonstrations when Communists would pick up the street and throw it at the police in bits and pieces. The open platform buses are gone and it is too bad, they provided an interesting solution to the problem of serving territory between stops on a bus line. Parisians were athletic in those days, they caught their buses on the run, the crowd leaning over the platform and cheering them on, helping hands reaching out to bring the racing passenger into the fold. Or they got off in between gear changes while the conductor grumbled, "Ce n'est pas l'arrêt," and turned his head. There are no more conductors, there are no more open platforms, the buses are hermetically sealed even between stops when they are stopped which is most of the time.

Parisians look back on this period with little nostalgia. They did not have to diet because they were rationed. They did not have to exercise because they ran for buses or cycled out to Nogent-sur-Marne on a Sunday, Monsieur and Madame on a tandem, the baby behind in a trailer. Cars were a curiosity, most of them had been up on blocks during the war and they appeared in public as gingerly as their proprietors, who preferred to gloss over what they had been doing during the war. It was considered bad form to have a new car unless one was American and in those days in in Paris it was not considered bad form to be an American. The breed was encouraged; not only could they buy cars but they were given liberal gasoline rations to run them. The French had no rations at all, but they ran their cars just the same. Any Frenchman who had an American for a friend didn't need an oilwell.

Overnight parking was forbidden. This is probably the most effective way to keep the population of cars and lovers down in a city; a car for every garage, a garage for every car. But it was no way to sell cars. In no time at all, the overnight parking ban came off and the great race was on to keep Paris ahead of the automobile. Streets were widened, acres of sidewalk were whittled down to slats in order to gain two traffic lanes up to the next bottleneck where more trees had to come down and more curbs were forced to retreat. Or the sidewalks themselves were converted into parking lots, officially as on Avenue des Champs-Elysées, unofficially as on every other avenue.

The car become a religion in Paris, perhaps more so than anywhere else. The Parisians have the lowest standards of housing and the highest proportion of car ownership of any Western European city in their league. The old class lines that had blurred somewhat in the immediate postwar confusion were being etched in again... and the easiest way to get across a line was to drive across. Every Parisian could be a man on horseback, every man had the power to crush the infantry that got in his way. The tin armor of body panels and the visor of the windshield came between the Parisian and the city streets from whence he himself had sprung not so long ago. He was not sure of the title to his new nobility, he had to keep asserting it all the time. Just as the converted Jew is supposed to be the worst of anti-Semites, the postwar Parisian with a new car was merciless with the pedestrians who reminded him of his humble condition of only yesterday. He was hardly less harsh on his peers, the drivers who had the effrontery to get in the way of his daily trip to gloire and grandeur. The car became his identity, so much so that the French post office adopted the license-number code to designate postal address zones. A Parisian does not get his mail addressed to the Seine departément any more, the envelope just says "-75-." The Breton in Lanloup is 22, the number that cars from the Côtes-du-Nord departément carry. What more identification could you have with the car; these people live in their license plates.

The old European drive for living space has been sublimated into a push for parking space. The Parisians are becoming bolder. In 1939, they said they weren't going to die for Danzig, today they die for a place to park, screaming and fistfighting and kicking until one of the two adversaries is felled by his infarctus. Etiquette as rigid as the protocol at the court of Versailles governs these encounters on the streets of Paris. For refusing to grant the right of way, one is accused of being a homosexual's mistress. For taking the right of way, one is accused of being a female private part (the mail private part is not used pejoratively in France as it is in English-speaking countries, a difference that could probably generate some fruitful psychoanalytical research). Using English on a Parisian driver is as unpardonable as trying to take the right of way on a bicycle. I do both. In extreme cases, I used to spit on cars but I stopped doing that the day a Ford Capri spun around in a U-turn and headed straight at me. Then I knew how an antelope feels when it is hunted by a sportsman with a high-powered rifle in a low-flying plane. I also bang on roofs. This is pretty effective because, in most French cars, the driver already feels that he is riding around in a beer can and he expects the whole thing to collapse around his head at any minute.

New York muggers are far less dangerous than middle upper-class Parisians. In my own experience, I have found the streets of Paris to be much more reassuring during a riot when traffic is blocked than they are when domestic tranquility reigns and traffic keeps moving. Moving? Flying... strafing, roaring through the gears, tires scorching as the green light drops the starter's checkered flag at Le Mans, through the gears up to fifty in a yellow-orange Renault R-8 (the same as the standard model except that it has four headlights in front and a big amplifier in back in the motor compartment, that's where they keep the cartidges---a flick of the finger and the driver can change the tape so that his engine stops snarling like a Jaguar and starts purring like a Ferrari... or he can shut it off so that it sounds like a Rolls Royce). And so one goes through the gears and through life in Paris where the sidewalks are safe and the streets are lethal.

A really big traffic jam is a lifesaver. Such jams occur whenever more than ten percent of the drivers in Paris decide to use their cars at the same time. A Métro strike provides such an occasion, a three-day weekend another. The biggest jam, the jam with thirty-two flavors, the time that the streets of Paris were paved with solid steel, rubber, and evil intentions, came in June 1968, when the great gasoline strike was broken by General de Gaulle so as to put an end to the "events" of May. He used light mobile units against striking tank trucks as he was never able to use them against striking German tanks in 1940.

With the police guarding the garages---I don't know whether they were gendarmes, Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, officiers de la paix, gardes champêtres, Sureté Nationale (France has as many varieties of cops as it has varieties of cheese, hence the expression: "Fromage it, the gendarmes!")---the gasoline trucks got out to the thirsty pumps of Paris, long drained by longs lines of Parisian drivers who had filled tanks, wine bottles, jerry cans, and bathtubs (for many, it was the first time they had used the bathtubs that came with the apartment they bought to have a fashionable address) in expectation of la révolution, l'occupation, la collaboration, and la liberation. As soon as the gasoline trucks began to roll, nothing else did. The trucks moved through town like freight trains with a long clanking of cars behind them. As soon as the tank truck began to pump gas into a service station, the cars began to take it out, filling up so that they would be able to get on the tail of another tank truck.

The ensuing jam lasted forever. Not only did some women have babies in stalled cars, but others had the time both to conceived their kids and deliver them. They never saw the fathers again after the jam was finally cleared, I don't know how, probably by lumberjacks flown in from le Québec, who worked the frozen rivers of steel from the tops of the cars with their peaveys, prying loose a Peugeot, tilting a Simca, logrolling a Cook's bus just for kicks.

To get away from all this, the Parisian acquires a country home or, to put it properly, he takes his city home to the country on weekends. In a way, this is worse than American suburban sprawl because it is more wasteful. The American has only one house and garden, the Parisian has his city apartment and then, leaping over the outer scab of high-rise suburbs, he has his residence secondaire. There is supposedly one such residence in France for every thirty-two persons, compared to one in seventy-seven for the United States. The poor French farmer gets it both ways: the Parisian rigs the wheel so that the farmer is driven off the land into a job in the big city, then the Parisian moves out onto his far. The barn becomes a duplex studio---living room, mullioned windows replace frank open panes, a big hole is torn out of the once-generous earth to plant an oil tank, the outhouse vanishes because it does not go with an in-house. Monsieur mows the lawn or, on rainy days, figures how much value his property has acquired since last Sunday. Madame gets fresh air and oxygen by driving down to the Hôtel du Coq d'Or in the village, where they have roasted her chicken for lunch.

The French themselves are worried. A report by the National Institute for Demographic Studies states: "As France has the privilege of having the most cars in Western Europe with the least amount of use per individual auto, we are about to have the greatest proportion of country homes at the same time as the highest overcrowding rate in our primary housing." Paris can also boast of the lowest ration of parks to people of any comparable big city. The Parisians who matter have their private parks sixty miles away; a six-lane chunk is torn from a public park like the Bois de Boulogne to help them get there.

Parisians without country houses, according to legend, spend their weekends driving around on the outer boulevards, circling the city until late Sunday, an acceptable time to return home and open the shutters while the neighbors look on. Then there are those who cannot even afford an apartment with a good address in Paris, let alone a country house. They are in a predicament, le standing does not allow them to live in a dormitory suburb, le budget bars them from the big city. Thanks to the car, they have been able to get out of the city and stay in it. It is the car that has made Parly II possible.

Never heard of Parly II? Just mention the word when you hear a supercilious Parisian lecturing about the desert of American taste, the Sahara of our savoir-vivre, the Gobi of our billboards and our shopping centers. Say the magic words: "Parly II" and he will fall silent, probably for the first time in his life. Every day and in every way, Parly II is strengthening its claim to the title of the most retched place in Europe.

The name alone shames all rivals. When its creator first had the idea of putting up blocks of identical flats in the country---one design infinitely reproduced right out of the cookie cutter but the architect's fee is 8 percent so all he has to do is sit back and make sure nothing happens to his right hand that might prevent him from cashing checks---when le promoteur, as the real-estate shark, the barracuda of the building game is known in Paris, decided to get decay out of the city by moving it into a forest, he wanted to call his project Paris II.

It was a Eureka moment, that one, in the history of the earth-blight game. In his fertile brain, he saw concrete piling up alongside streets bearing the names of the most sought-after addresses in Paris. The mark would be able to move in and Madame Mark could get her stationery printed up: "The Marks, 1 Rue de la Paix, Paris II." No, better made that paris ii, get it down to agate, small enough so that it won't be noticed by anyone except the postman.

Like all other great ideas in France, this one went unappreciated. It was killed by small men of small vision. The Paris Municipal Council raised bloody hell, spurred no doubt by constituents living in places like 1 Rue de la Paix, Paris I. It was Verdun all over again. Nothing was sacred---burgundy grown in California, champagne in New York State, cognac in Armedia, the Americans had even stolen la guerre d'Indochine, and now someone was trying to make off with the good name of the capital itself. Paris had not raised that much hell since the Trojan Wars. It got its way, it liberated itself without the help of Hemingway. Paris became an appellation contrôlée, no other city in France had the right to use the name, it was proprietary, like Coke.

Since Paris II needed another hook for the sucker bait, it became Parly II. This combined the original name and that of nearby Marly-le-Roi, a town too feeble to protest, for it was still suffering from the amputation of SHAPE headquarters, the last square millimeter of French soil to be freed from foreign despoilers. Marly was also freed from a couple of thousand well-off families, thereby turning it into a disaster area for landlords and shopkeepers. It was too weak to defend its name. Settlers at Parly II could now answer the embarrassing question of what the name of the place had been before it was Parly II. The whole matter has been resolved and will probably stay that way until Paris decides to get a new image, to lure the exiles back by changing its name to Parly I.

One day, I wheeled into Parly II shortly before high noon on my piebald Peugeot bike. I climbed down from the saddle and looked for a place to hitch the bike. Not a post in sight, just a spiral ramp that led into the parking lot under the shopping center at Parly II, the biggest in all Europe. So I took the bike into the shopping center, one of the boys from the Big Bend country, afraid to go out in the city without his rose for company. The bike wheeled obediently with nothing more than a loose hand on its saddle to guide it. I saw no one else walking bikes through the shopping center but it couldn't have harmed the marble floor any more than a shopping cart or a baby carriage.

On I walked, my head aswim. Musaque, I guess that is what they called it in Parlysian, poured out of hidden speakers. It was an air terminal all over again without the airplanes. This was true progress, far ahead of the laggard Americans who build suburban shopping centers with parking lots for cars. Parly II has lashed them to the mast: it has built a parking lot for people, customers by the hundreds, by the thousands, glued out in their concrete flytraps somewhere between Versailles and the Autoroute de 'Ouest, nothing to see but more flytraps, no one to talk to but more trapped flies, nothing to do but shop, shop, shop all week long by themselves, then shop some more on Saturdays with the husbands and the kids.

This was a factory farm for consumers, no more free ranging through street markets, no more pushcarts, no more Mamanet-Papa shops, just the grand concourse of Parly II, the colors, the lights, the fountains, the palace of the new Versailles where every man is a sun king. And no bistros, bars, cafés to speak of, just a little place for cigarettes and newspapers and a few tables, very few. Investments don't get amortized over a round of pastis or vin blanc; at the shopping center in Parly II, they keep 'em walking, there's no time for leisure in the société des loisirs.

There is less than an ocean between us and Parly II. Paris has always pioneered not in industrial innovation but in the invention of such new political forms as centralization, military dictatorship, the reign of terror, and, most recently, videocracy, government by monopoly TV. In the United States, the automobile is now giving us more spatial but less social mobility, a tendency to seek the same homogenizing social zoning that Paris has achieved. IBM doesn't set any precedents when it goes to Westchester, Louis XIV moved his whole operation to Versailles two hundred fifty years before.

Chapter 5, Man the Mechanical Rabbit

 

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