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Albany: Invisible and Visible Geographies

I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life-bios-graphically on a map. First I envisaged an ordinary map, but now I would incline to a general staff’s map of a city center, if such a thing existed. . . . I have evolved a system of signs, and on the gray background of such maps they would make a colorful show if I clearly marked in the houses of my friends, and girl friends.

—Walter Benjamin, Reflections

Unlike Benjamin’s, Francis’s is not “an ordinary map”; his are not the ordinary spatial practices of everyday users and flaneurs, with their transient, evasive, and indirect spatial practices that are invisible to the “foreign,” to the “geometrical” space of the city. His life-bios proves hard to delineate, for as a homeless person he lacks the visible system of signs connecting his home and his friends. There is no colorful show marking different places, but a “grey background,” where indifferent and invisible practitioners move back and forth. In the absence of a center or a base, Francis, like the rest of the homeless characters in the novel, inhabits shacks, lean-tos, abandoned houses, or simply sleeps among the weeds. All of them may surface into the visible geography of Albany with brief stops at bars, libraries, the mission, or the music store. Their presence in this visible city, however, is always predicated on movement and on a merely temporary occupation of space. Francis, like the rest of his entourage, falls into the category of “dispersed beings” (Bachelard [1958] 1994, 7) who touch base and are immediately on the go. For Francis and Helen, his companion, locations such as the mission or Jack’s apartment offer temporary sanctuary, but their fenced-in quality also transforms them into places to escape from. These part-time homes are not about inclusions and open arms as much as closed doors, borders, and screening apparatuses (George 1999, 18).

After a day’s work with Rosskam and his Proustian rag-picking, however, Francis is ready to emerge out of the class-based enclosure of the homeless onto the visible geography of his past. With a turkey under his arm, he knocks on the house he used to share with his family, where he has not set foot for twenty years. It is a vital location in Francis’s spatial bios, a sanctuary to return to at the end of his personal pilgrimage. As opposed to the routine evictions from personal or communal homes, Francis is finally welcome with open doors. No resentment, no remorse; no screening of the fugitive; a welcoming “It’s over” (159) salutes him and cancels out the past, automatically forgiven in the immediacy of the present. Sitting in the breakfast nook, Francis seizes upon the view that makes up the image of domesticity: the backyard, the flower beds, the dog, the apple tree. The home finally provides an intimate place that is bound up with the memories lodged in it, for “places without stories are unthinkable” (Price 2004, xxi). Homes, like places, are processual and porous, argues Price, as layers of memories accumulate in sites over time. “The place that materializes from this repetitive superimposition is never finished, never closed, never determined” (ibid., 5). The home Francis encounters is a layered text of narratives he is once more modifying with his mere presence, a stranger, a nomad that is now reacquainted with his former life. His “Proustian findings,” pictures and clippings, glove, and baseball paraphernalia have remained locked up for twenty years in his trunk, thus creating a static image at the heart of Francis’s life-in-motion. Drugged by the scent of the reconstituted past, Francis achieves what he thought he could never do again: he reenters history through the objects of the past (168). If the layers of useless objects in the junkyard provided the generic biography of Francis and the rest of the homeless people in the novel, and the exterior geography of Albany provided a vision of his spatialized bios, it is an arrangement of things and the touching of artifacts that captures Francis’s narrative. The trunk provides the “autotopography” that allows the reader to further delve into the character’s dialectics:7

Francis stared up at himself from the bleachers in Chadwick Park on a day in 1899, his face unlined, his teeth all there, his collar open, his hair unruly in the afternoon’s breeze. He lifted the picture for a closer look and saw himself among a group of men, tossing a baseball from bare right hand to gloved left hand. The flight of the ball had always made this photo mysterious to Francis, for the camera had caught the ball clutched in one hand and also in flight, arcing in a blur toward the glove. What the camera had caught was two instants in one: time separated and unified, the ball in two places at once, an eventuation as inexplicable as the Trinity itself.

Just as the ball can be in two places at the same time, clutched in a hand and in full motion, Francis can be a static and a nomadic hero, caught in a still picture that dissolves contraries and achieves the impossible. In the house Francis turns into a grandfather, teaching his grandson how to throw an inshoot, and inaugurates his transformed self with a ritual of cleansing. Feeling blessed, Francis comes down the stairs in a bow tie and a white-on-white shirt. He is home, but, like the ball in the old photograph, he is also in flight. For him, the idea of home is rerouted and does not fit the concept of home a la Bachelard. If, according to Martin Heidegger and as mentioned in the introduction, dwelling, from Old English wuon and the Gothic wunian, means “to be at peace, to be brought to peace, to remain in peace” ([1971] 2001, 147), there is no such place for Francis. For even if he is home now, he is also, as he answers to his daughter, nowhere (178); both seemingly antithetical locations are part of the same dynamics. If we interpret the home as “the structured social body in which each part has its place” (cf. Zizek 2006, 166), Francis, the part with no part, cannot be ready to enter such a place. Francis stands the ground of his homelessness and remains as the wanderer that does not flee but refuses to budge from his places of eviction. This is Francis’s dialectics, between living and leaving, between seeking sanctuary and escaping from that very home, between exception and self-exemption. For him, home is rerouted and is situated elsewhere.

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