Up on the Roof

A few months ago I discovered that there was a way up to the roof of my building just outside my front door. I invested in a ladder, went up there once, then didn’t think of it again till a couple weeks ago. This time I dragged my French easel and paints up there and these are the first couple results.

I’ve never been much for painting outdoors but this may actually work out. I can see in all directions from up there and when it’s not too windy—a canvas acts pretty much like a sail given the chance—it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours.

The Other Paris

I’ll assume that most of you aren’t Chicago Tribune subscribers, much less the select few who receive its Printers Row book supplement, so here is my review of Luc Sante’s great new book about Paris which comes out tomorrow. You should each buy a dozen copies.

A city has many faces but the one it presents to a visitor most often is the one the boosters, chamber of commerce types, and captains of industry would like us to see. A city as seemingly well-known as Paris — the city of lights, of romance — doesn’t need PR men to sell itself. But there is more to the place than the postcard would like us to believe. Away from the boulevards is another city, one we might never discover because those who live there don’t have the means, interest or forethought to save it for posterity.

Unlike the famous places we celebrate “because the rich have the power to save the things they love,” as Luc Sante writes early in his new book, “The Other Paris,” there are many corners which would be lost to the dustbin of history were it not for the curious passersby, the types who are interested in what’s beyond the glitz and glamour. The documenters of the side street and the hidden cellar are the heroes of Sante’s book and our tour guides to a very different Paris than we’ve been shown before.

The flaneur, broadly defined, is a stroller, a person who shambles about the town and notices obscure details. Sante gathers a murderers’ row of them to shine his light down every darkened alley of the French capital. The heart of the book is concerned with the enormous transformations which took place in the 19th century. Baron Haussmann’s grand renovations obliterated whole neighborhoods to widen boulevards and razed centuries-old structures to plan parks for the well-heeled. Fortunately, through early photography and illustration which accompanies the “verbal photography” of many of his sources, Sante shows us the long-gone places sacrificed to progress:

Everything is always going away, every way of life is continually subject to disappearance, all who reach their middle years have lost the landscape of their childhood, everyone given to introspection feels threatened.

Sante grudgingly allows that innovations such as central plumbing are a public good while decrying many of the other “improvements” of urban renewal. He casts his lot with the ragpickers and streetwalkers, and his readers are better off for it. His team of streetside noticers introduce us to men who make a living selling cigarettes reassembled from spent butts, women whose sole job is to waken others for work, and dozens of other obsolete employments. As the city was cleaned up and modernized, many marginal types were literally forced to the periphery, forced to scrounge on the outskirts of the expanding metropolis. There, around the former medieval walls, a zone of lawlessness allowed for vice and improvised entrepreneurship to flourish. The city fathers did their best to scrub the grime away, but:

The city’s principal constituent matter is accrued time. The place is lousy with it. Not everyone is happy about this, since the past is burdensome and ungovernable and never accords with totalizing ideologies or unified design theories or schemes for maximizing profit.

Over the 200 or so years covered in these pages we meet cabaret warblers, pimps, poets, petty thieves, anarchists, but hardly any representatives of the upper crust. The Louvre and the Bois de Boulogne have no need of champions, but old dancehalls and their denizens deserve to be remembered; Sante marshals the memories of both famed writers like Victor Hugo as well as those of long-forgotten criminals to ensure that we don’t forget.

Sante’s great fear is that the forces of urban improvement will sanitize the character of the city in favor of security and cookie-cutter sameness. That there will be no ragged wonder left to discover. No chance to drift through streets and find the oddities which make one place distinct from any other. As he writes at the end:

The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay.

We would do well to heed his words and not eliminate the mess which makes the city so different than the suburban shopping mall.


A couple weekends ago Open Books asked me to come sketch Aleksandar Hemon, Luis Urrea, Rebecca Makkai, and Irvine Welsh read excerpts from their books with actors from Steppenwolf Theater.

In most cases the writers would take the narration or inner monologue while the actors handled dialogue.

One of the problems with book readings is that books are a polyphony but the reader, even a great one, can only give the audience one voice.

This set-up with the actors solved some of that. Still, it made me think about how different the feeling of reading is from that of performance. 

When I’m not painting pet portraits I sometimes supplement my living by working door at a couple of my favorite bars. This weekend I was at Skylark on Friday and Rainbo on Saturday. It’s an easy job for the most part. You stand at your post, check IDs, pick up empty glasses, stock up the beer coolers at the end of the night and go home. The best part though is the people-watching. I saw a guy buy every unattached girl in the bar a drink over the course of about three hours. He’d wander over to me to report on how well he was doing, “killing it…” he’d whisper, then stagger back toward his prey. He’d follow them outside if they were going to smoke, then sprint back in to drain his bowels, then hustle back out. They all talked to him and some seemed to enjoy it but I think he went home alone.

On Sunday afternoon I volunteered for Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House. I’d always meant to make it to this yearly event and thought being part of it might get me to do so. Unfortunately the only site I got to see was the Columbia Yacht Club, where I was stationed. I spent the first hour outside by the entrance greeting people. I’ve never done this much in my own life but it’s really true that if you smile at a stranger they will almost always smile back. I sketched DuSable Harbor. There was a red-faced, mustachioed man on one of the boats bellowing at the Bears game on the radio. In between pain sounds he’d pour himself and his wife white wine from a little table on the deck.

The last few hours of my shift were spent inside the docked former icebreaker which houses the yacht club. Our main task was to record the zip codes or countries of residence of visitors so that the organizers could get a more accurate picture of their audience. The idea of the open house is to give the public an opportunity to go inside private places they wouldn’t be able to the rest of the year.

My part was pretty much the same as at the taverns. I greeted people, checked a small bit of information, then watched them walk by. It’s the perfect kind of gig for someone like me.