The Flaneuse’s Return



Neighborhood: Kensington

Prospect Park Ravine

Every now and again I find myself contemplating a suitable place for a desk. This may sound mundane, except that the home in these musings is not where I live.

Even in reverie, this desk-placing endeavor is no easy feat. For while the contemplation serves as a daydream, the home—an apartment in Kensington, Brooklyn—actually exists. And because it exists, one must respect its actual precincts. One cannot place a desk in a fictional space.

That is to say, I cannot place a desk in a spare room or office because in this apartment there is no spare room or office. What there is, rather, is a rectangular main room from which extend like the arms on an E, a vestibule, kitchen, and bathroom, and before the bathroom, two windows and a short, narrow hall. A desk, if there is to be one, must occupy one of those spaces.

The vestibule contains a closet. Sometimes I imagine bracketing a sturdy piece of wood to the back of that closet and using that as a desk. Given the closet’s dimensions (about six square feet), the desk could accommodate a laptop, notepad, and lamp. I could even add a shelf or two above the desk for supplies and books. This configuration would amount to a small home office. Sheltered from distractions, I might work in that office. And then when I’m done, I could close the door on workaday stuff.

Other options would be to put a desk in the small, narrow hall, which also contains a closet, or to the left or right of the windows. These last two locations would provide more space than the closet. Yet, both arrangements would lend themselves to gazing at street life below and necessitate moving the bookshelves that existed, and in the time warp of my mind still exist, in those spots.

When I lived in that apartment, I did not have a desk. What I had was a butcher-block counter in the kitchen and a sofa and bed in the main room. Sometimes I’d type on my laptop at the butcher-block counter. 

In any case, one might consider these alternatives moot. After all, it’s been nearly a decade since I lived in that apartment. I now live in a house in Utah more than two-thousand miles away, a house, I might add, with a comfortable desk.

That still leaves the question of placement. Not of my current desk or home office, which consists of more than a closet, and brims with well-arranged books, but rather of myself. In other words, the question that drives these recurring fantasies is none other than this: Where is an apt place for me?

Before moving to my current home in Utah, I spent most of my life in New York. As a native of Gotham, I had long contemplated leaving for greener environs. Some of my happiest moments in the city involved strolling through the forest in the Bronx Botanical Gardens or trekking to the Cloisters along the sylvan paths of Fort Tryon Park. Thinking about those walks, I feel as clearly now as I did when I took them the delight of being amid old-growth trees and rich loamy duff. Absent the usual urban cues, I would imagine myself into rustic locales. But the purity of feeling seldom endured. The blare of a back-up beeper or horn sufficed to remind me that though I could feign being in the country, I’d never really left town. And that at some point I’d need to go home.

Not that my home itself posed a problem. Indeed, for several years, home was the apartment where I still contemplate placing a desk. Rather, it was traveling I despised. A visit to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, for instance often required an hour and a half each way. Destinations beyond the metropolis—hiking trails along the Hudson or further upstate—took even longer. After several hours travelling by Amtrak and subway, I’d arrive home depleted of the well-being I’d gained from my idyllic excursions. And so, more often than not, I chose to embrace nature closer to home. This meant walking about a mile to Greenwood Cemetery in one direction or Prospect Park in another, or else three miles to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  I’d bought my Brooklyn  apartment with those places in mind. Still, the goings and the returning involved pavement pounding. Would that trees embowered my home.

Which in my present home they do. And which, hedonic adaptation be damned, I seldom cease to appreciate. 

Now, for instance, I’m sitting on the deck, which is wet from predawn rain. My rooster is crowing; one of the hens is laying an egg. The pine forest, located to the west, exists in matinal penumbra. But the aspens, which flank the house to the east, shimmer in early-morning sun. Amid this arboreal splendor, I imbibe petrichor and tea.

This setting suits me: the petrichor, the chickens, the deck, the pine forest, the aspens, the mist. How fortunate I am, who never expected such luck, to reside in this bucolic grandeur.

But unlike the yogi who shuns rumination in favor of “living in the present,” I reside not only in the physical world around me but also in imagined ones within. And so while moments ago I was steeped in the sensory experience of sitting on the deck, I have now shifted focus to the Brooklyn apartment.

An apartment someone else lives in now, but that I still happen to own. Sometimes I conjure images of that someone—a graduate student and teacher—awakening in that apartment, which is tidy and spare and demands little of her labors and time. Instead of feeding chickens and harvesting fruit, as I did before retiring to the deck with my tea, she can go directly to the tea and sip it while studying or writing.

It’s becoming apparent these reveries of my Brooklyn apartment involve, among other things, a craving for relief from chores. And within that space, opened by a lessening of chores, a hunger for increased intellectual engagement.

I’ve considered scaling back on the homestead: give away the chickens; let the orchard go to the birds. Yet even writing these words triggers feelings of loss. And if contemplation alone stirs these sensations, what emotions might actual scaling back—or even abdication—arouse? 

Earlier I suggested distaste for pounding the pavement. That’s true when my focus is rustic. But there are times I can imagine few more gratifying pastimes than traipsing the streets of New York. On such occasions, I might head to a chosen café that offers a certain aesthetic: unobtrusive music or no music at all; no more than four or five tables; fellow patrons reading or writing, or engaged in bookish tête-à-têtes (spoken with just enough volume to enable me to eavesdrop or simply ignore). Chosen because it’s far enough from home to allow for an ample walk, but not so far as to hitch my mental wanderings to a single-minded focus on breakfast. And then after coffee, reading, and a scone, onward to another destination. That could mean a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and up to the Strand. Why? Perhaps because I’d noted in a book I was reading reference to another that I might also enjoy. And then after the Strand, further uptown to sort through shirts at a thrift store. Because here’s the thing: though bookstores and thrift shops are fine destinations, these walks are primarily about the treasures I might find along the way.

And while books and shirts may comprise some of those treasures, others consist of street scenes—a middle-aged Muslim woman helping an older Jewish woman negotiate a curb, a lanky teen wordlessly handing a stranger his cell phone before proceeding to carry her toddler-laden stroller up the stairs from the subway. Sometimes these treasures, like those we may find in a curio shop, are naught but pure intrigue—a goat wandering willy-nilly along the avenue, a man in top hat and tails strutting across Lullwater Bridge in Prospect Park.

Many riches lie, not in the city per se, though urban scenes catalyze them, but rather inside my head. Urban walking is not merely a physical pastime, but also a mental one of observing and thinking, pursuits that comprise the flaneuse’s raison d’être.

The best way to practice this is usually in the company of one. Yet, as much as the flaneuse enjoys large swathes of solitude, engagement  can also be a privilege. Thus, a certain nostalgia for walks with a friend through a rainy Central Park where from beneath our umbrellas we considered the motives impelling so-and-so’s behavior or words. That so-and-so may be a character in a novel or an actual person hardly matters. Few experiences prove more delightful than two close friends engaged in conversation while orbiting the park in the rain.

Earlier this week I went for a solitary walk in the canyon. In the solitude and in the walk, I recognized traits of my New York self transposed into a pine and juniper forest. Following a riparian trail, I came upon a waterfall set deep in a ravine. I made my way down the ravine and leaned against a rock. For a while, the moment prevailed: here I was alone by a waterfall in a pine and juniper forest. How outlandish it felt that I, a born urbanite, should find myself in these backwoods environs. More outlandish still was that I had driven myself there along swerving canyon roads, when prior to moving to the intermountain west I had seldom driven at all.

Leaning against the rock, I contemplated these swerves not merely in the roads, but also in the course of life. And then I got to pondering the waterfall of Ambergill Falls in Prospect Park. Located in a ravine, it was designed by Olmstead and Vaux to resemble certain falls in the Adirondacks. Now here I was pondering how this waterfall in the intermountain west reminded me of Ambergill Falls.

When I first began traversing Prospect Park, Ambergill Falls didn’t exist. Or rather, it existed but had become buried under silt. Then in the 1990s, combined efforts led to the restoration of many hidden gems including Ambergill Falls. Thereafter, I would sometimes find myself tarrying by those falls, fantasizing about being in a forest.

Now after a decade of living in such a place, I wonder if I might appreciate Ambergill Falls for what it is, an architecturally-designed verisimilitude of natural falls fed by a pipe from the municipal water-supply system, providing an idyllic respite in the midst of the city.

Might my mental habits add yet one more layer to the palimpsest of memory, so that a future tarry by Ambergill Falls triggers imaginings not only of the Adirondacks but also of a waterfall in the intermountain west? Some might consider these ruminations a sign of compromised sanity. Lacking qualifications on the matter, I’ll refrain from opining. What I will say is that I find joy in plumbing the layers of memory not only for the lived experiences it reveals but also for patterns of my preoccupations.

Surely, it’s of consequence that here on my deck I’m sitting not on a lawn chair, but rather at a table one might find in an urban café. One might read this arrangement as an urban dot of yin in a rural swirl of yang. If so, then it’s a dot that’s diffusing into the swirl. Which is another way of saying that my desire for the city is growing.

Not all aspects of the city, of course. I could do without the immense inequalities that leave so many people struggling to meet basic needs. Just as senescence prompts many a soul to wax rueful for youth, exile may spark nostalgia for the home one has left. 

Even as I write these words, I wonder if I’m guilty in absentia of glorifying my urban life or if I suffer from a species of nostalgie de la boue. Yet, considering these possibilities does little to dampen the joy I feel at revisiting my inner Gotham museum, the one that holds in its collection the time a passenger dropped her cell phone while exiting a rush-hour train, a mishap which prompted the concatenation of rapid-fire collaboration by fellow passengers to reunite owner with gadget. Or the time a beggar requested from me a quarter before noticing that I appeared utterly dejected. “Here,” he said, handing me a dollar from his cup. “Looks like you could use more help than me.”

That moments like these spark longing may seem odd. Yet these feelings have become more pronounced since the start of the current pandemic. While nearly half a million people have fled the city in recent months, I’m the expat who aches for return.

Perhaps, I want to be present as witness. Studying photo essays of the city, I’ve tried to imagine how it might feel to be there now. Does one walk by morgue trucks and grieve? Enter grocery stores with trepidation or angst? People-watch from a safe distance and still take pleasure in observing?

I’ve asked my tenant what it’s like in the city for her. “We learn to adapt,” she said. She’s studying and teaching online, so spends much time inside. I picture her working at her desk, which she’s placed where my bookshelves used to be.

What I haven’t heard in her responses is any intimation of leaving New York. Quite the contrary. During a recent exchange, she informed me that the apartment across the hall had gone on the market and that she was planning to buy it. She was wondering how I’d feel if she moved before the end of the lease. “I’d feel fine about it,” I said.

That, it turns out, was an understatement. Promptly, I returned to contemplating a place for my desk. It won’t be in a closet, I’ve decided. After many years of such an arrangement, I now covet more of a view. Not of trees, but rather of an urban panorama. These shifting human scenes are precisely what I need now to get my work done. So after a decade of living in the diaspora, I will finally make my way home.


Felicia Rose recently returned to Kensington, Brooklyn after living in rural Utah for eight years. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Westchester Review, The Lavender Review, Mother Earth News, and The Sun. She ekes out a living as an educator and editor. 

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§ 2 Responses to “The Flaneuse’s Return”

  • My day has been transformed by reading this article. Transformed for the better. I suspect her words will remain with me for a very long time. I, too, often long to journey back to my roots for many reasons. She took me there today, and it has made all the difference. Thank you!

  • Mia Baz (they/them) says:

    What great writing, thank you! Moved to Kensington last summer and loving it so far, but I have long harbored dreams of cabin and farm (and yet still know after some unknowable length of time I’d need city life back for exactly your sort of reasons). I’m also often preoccupied with noticing my patterns of preoccupation, so reading this was a real treat. I’d take a walk in the park with you anytime! Thanks again, neighbor!

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