I show you mine if you show me yours.
They call them cauliflower neighbourhoods, and we were hovering right above one of them. Our eyes gazed at the screen that was illuminating the studio, the computer was softly humming. Cauliflowers have a funny shape. Like broccoli. Each branch contains a smaller version of itself. I don't know why urban planners during the eighties wouldn't call them broccoli neighbourhoods. In the traditional Dutch kitchen, both vegetables are usually overcooked. From a bird's eye perspective my cauliflower home turf appeared organic and loosely organised. Each section was curling up inside itself, and then another courtyard would follow. Small clusters of houses, playgrounds and roads where cars would lose track, forced to drive slowly by cleverly designed bumps in the road.
I showed mine.
On a screen, because I hadn't been there for ages. The Google car passed by more recently, slowly. Maybe it lost track as well while trying to stitch the images together. I showed mine and it looked different from what I remembered: someone forgot or refused to cut the grass in the front yard, the plastic white border along the roof rack turned out murky. What I was trying to show though, was something else.
'Look, all those houses are exactly the same.'
'But they are nice', you answered.
You showed me yours.
Or well, you didn't.
You showed me a modest street where lush oleander overflowed a balcony and palm trees grew through cracks in the pavement. Amaranth pink and azure blue hues brightened the walls of some houses. Behind most windows the curtains were closed. I'm not sure if your ciudad also has cauliflowers. Viewed from above it's clearly designed as a grid. As we zoomed in, you showed me this instead of yours, because initially you were embarrassed or afraid that the close-up image of yours made by the Google car would reveal all that was wrong: how your road also had bumps, but not by design. How not all the houses in the street would be similar, that some would even be collapsing or completely missing. How a few loose bricks and overhead power lines would confirm all those prejudices. That it was less, that it wasn't safe there, something to be ashamed of.
But no it wasn't. And even if it was, I wouldn't have been able to read the image in that way. I just noticed the colours, and the plants. Red flowers camouflaged by an oxblood red wall.
We shared a subtle embarrassment. Me of newtown 1 cleanliness, a lack of personality and the suffocating feeling that comes with well-intended architecture. You of scruffiness, of rough edges, of a sense of neglect that the tender care of individuals can't conceal.
There's a difference between cutting a hole in your jeans to look like you don't care, compared to having a hole in your jeans but actually longing for a crisp dark indigo pair with zero marks of fading. Then there are also jeans that are sold with the holes cut out for you, but that's another story. Then there are also galleries who sell images of Detroit ruins, as in: framed photographs of that decaying art-deco theatre that became a parking lot, or the French Renaissance-style house holding its last breath to avoid further crumbling, all falling apart. That's also another story.
Where is the longing for cuts and slits and piles and mold and dust and crumbles and rough edges coming from?
In Constance de Jong's novel Modern Love, its heroine Charlotte discovers a hidden room in the backside of the Gem Spa. The Gem Spa is a newspaper stand in the East Village in New York City, that became famous for its original egg cream drink and cult following – serving as a hang out for hippie artists in the sixties, before junkies in the seventies would occupy the storefront and Basquiat would name one of his paintings after the corner store a decade later. Modern Love got published in 1977. During the Summer, Charlotte develops the daily habit of buying ice cream cones ('I licked away my afternoons in the back of the shop where they kept the dirty books') and keeps noticing a man appearing and disappearing. First she thinks he works there, the space behind the door where he's vanishing through is probably the store room. But then he invites her over.
'I was wrong about many things. It wasn't a store room. He lived there. And it turned out I was scared. He didn't ask me to sit down. He didn't ask me anything. What was I doing in a dark back room full of weird smells and jumping shadows, piles of books and a little old man sitting on the floor staring into a cup of coffee. Then I remembered my decision. I'll tell him about my obsession.'
'Monsieur Le Prince, I'm obsessed with the past.'
For Charlotte, Monsieur Le Prince grows into a mentor, an all-knowing oracle who she can visit now and then, while she 'pushes to have a separate identity from the ghost people' of the newtown she has left far behind her. The hidden room, where little paths cut through the junk, becomes a safe haven, something larger than life that only she can treasure. When she invites her boyfriend to come along one day, he's not able to recognise a prince. All he sees is a pile of rubbish occupied by a lunatic hoarder.
The first time I read the words 'Gem Spa' was on a record sleeve. On the B-side of an Arthur Russell record there's a delightful remix of his song Make 1, 2 that he named (Gem Spa Dub). The song is from 1986. If Arthur also used to hang out in the shop buying ice creams, could he have known that backroom of Monsieur Le Prince?
I haven't seen the record for a while, because it's hidden in my storage room. My record collection sits in the middle of the house, but a door keeps it from direct view. That door I'd rather not open, since I know too well what's behind it: a walk in closet full of chaos that's hard to navigate. Covers are folded, inside sleeves are missing and somewhere in between mediocre thrift store records there might be one of my favourite albums. It's just that I don't know exactly where. And oh yes, there are also scratches. Scratches everywhere, small and deep ones, those that will make the record skip.
It's interesting how the aura surrounding vinyl records is covered in a romantic layer of dust. 'Dusty Fingers' was the name of a compilation series specialised in rare break beats found on second hand albums. And people often talk fondly of that nice 'dusty' sound of vinyl. But in reality, dust is not allowed. 'When buying and selling vinyl, a good understanding of grading is absolutely essential', opens an article by a record collector who elaborates on the grades of a second hand record, from Mint (absolutely perfect in every way) to Poor (attempting to listen will be a disturbing experience). 'When I'm invited into an immaculate house with cream carpets and am asked to remove my shoes I'm already getting a good feeling about the condition of the record collection', he follows.
I'm sadly aware of in which category my records belong. With their rough edges and scratches, they are close to Poor. I didn't wash them properly in the disc-o-antistat machine, but I played them at house parties where people danced on top of them, or I fumbled them hastily back in their sleeves while doubting about what to play next during a nervous dj set. In the record game I'll lose, because the trick is to have records that are both 'rare' and in perfect condition. That have a personality but are also completely clean. One of a kind, but no traces of dirt.
'On Jamaica you can find every record you ever wanted', said a friend last week, 'but at the same time there's nothing, because the dj culture is so heavy that all of them are scratched beyond repair.'
My heart made a small jump. Perhaps it's time to open that door again. While staring at the door, in your ciudad the buildings are crumbling.
1. Newtown, where everybody goes around sniffing televisena / Or taking footballina - The Slits