The Street of Crocodiles

MY FATHER kept in the lower drawer of his large desk an old and beautiful map of our city. It was a whole folio sheaf of parchment pages which, originally fastened with strips of linen, formed an enormous wall map, a bird’s eye panorama.

Będziemy wiecznie żałowali, żeśmy wtedy wyszli na chwilę z magazynu konfekcji podejrzanej konduity. Nigdy nie trafimy już doń z powrotem. Będziemy błądzili od szyldu do szyldu i mylili się setki razy. Zwiedzimy dziesiątki magazynów, trafimy do całkiem podobnych, będziemy wędrowali przez szpalery książek, wertowali czasopisma i druki, konferowali długo i zawile z panienkami o nadmiernym pigmencie i skażonej piękności, które nie potrafią zrozumieć naszych życzeń.

Będziemy się wikłali w nieporozumienia, aż cała nasza gorączka i podniecenie ulotni się w niepotrzebnym wysiłku, w straconej na próżno gonitwie.

Nasze nadzieje były nieporozumieniem, dwuznaczny wygląd lokalu i służby — pozorem, konfekcja była prawdziwą konfekcją, a subiekt nie miał żadnych ukrytych intencji. Świat kobiecy ulicy Krokodylej odznacza się całkiem miernym zepsuciem, zagłuszonym grubymi warstwami przesądów moralnych i banalnych pospolitości. W tym mieście taniego materiału ludzkiego brak także wybujałości instynktu, brak niezwykłych i ciemnych namiętności.

Ulica Krokodyli była koncesją naszego miasta na rzecz nowoczesności i zepsucia wielkomiejskiego. Widocznie nie stać nas było na nic innego, jak na papierową imitację, jak na fotomontaż złożony z wycinków zleżałych, zeszłorocznych gazet.

Hung on the wall, the map covered it almost entirely and opened a wide view on the valley of the River Tysmienica which wound itself like a wavy ribbon of pale gold, on the maze of widely spreading ponds and marshes, on the high ground rising towards the south, gently at first, then in ever tighter ranges, in a chessboard of rounded hills, smaller and paler as they receded towards the misty yellow fog of the horizon. From that faded distance of the periphery, the city rose and grew towards the centre of the map, an undifferentiated mass at first, a dense complex of blocks and houses, cut by deep canyons of streets, to become on the first plan a group of single houses, etched with the sharp clarity of a landscape seen through binoculars. In that section of the map, the engraver concentrated on the complicated and manifold profusion of streets and alleyways, the sharp lines of cornices, architraves, archivolts and pilasters, lit by the dark gold of a late and cloudy afternoon which steeped all corners and recesses in the deep sepia of shade. The solids and prisms of that shade darkly honeycombed the ravines of streets, drowning in a warm colour here half a street, there a gap between houses. They dramatized and orchestrated in a bleak romantic chiaroscuro the complex architectural polyphony.

On that map, made in the style of baroque panoramas, the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known. The lines of only a few streets were marked in black and their names given in simple, unadorned lettering, different from the noble script of the other captions. The cartographer must have been loath to include that district in the city and his reservations found expression in the typographical treatment.

In order to understand these reservations, we must draw attention to the equivocal and doubtful character of that peculiar area, so unlike the rest of the city.

It was an industrial and commercial district, its soberly utilitarian character glaringly underlined. The spirit of the times, the mechanism of economics, had not spared our city and had taken root in a sector of its periphery which then developed into a parasitical quarter.

While in the old city a nightly semi-clandestine trade prevailed, marked by ceremonious solemnity, in the new district modern, sober forms of commercial endeavour had flourished at once. The pseudoAmericanism, grafted on the old, crumbling core of the city, shot up here in a rich but empty and colourless vegetation of pretentious vulgarity. One could see there cheap jerry-built houses with grotesque facades, covered with a monstrous stucco of cracked plaster. The old, shaky suburban houses had large hastily constructed portals grafted on to them which only on close inspection revealed themselves as miserable imitations of metropolitan splendour. Dull, dirty and faulty glass panes in which dark pictures of the street were wavily reflected, the badly planed wood of the doors, the grey atmosphere of those sterile interiors where the high shelves were cracked and the crumbling walls were covered with cobwebs and thick dust, gave these shops the stigma of some wild Klondike. In row upon row there spread tailors’ shops, general outfitters, china stores, chemists’ shops and barbers’ saloons. Their large grey display windows bore slanting semicircular inscriptions in thick gilt letters:

CONFISERIE, MANICURE, KING OF ENGLAND.

The old established inhabitants of the city kept away from that area where the scum, the lowest orders had settled-creatures without character, without background, moral dregs, that inferior species of human being which is born in such ephemereal communities. But on days of defeat, in hours of moral weakness, it would happen that one or another of the city dwellers would venture half by chance into that dubious district. The best among them were not entirely free from the temptation of voluntary degradation, of breaking down the barriers of hierarchy, of immersion in that shallow mud of companionship, of easy intimacy, of dirty intermingling. The district was an Eldorado for such moral deserters. Everything seemed suspect and equivocal there, everything promised with secret winks, cynically stressed gestures, raised eyebrows, the fulfilment of impure hopes, everything helped to release the lowest instincts from their shackles.

Only a few people noticed the peculiar characteristics of that district: the fatal lack of colour, as if that shoddy, quickly growing area could not afford the luxury of it. Everything was grey there as in blackand-white photographs, or in cheap illustrated catalogues. This similarity was real rather than metaphorical because at times, when wandering in those parts, one in fact gained the impression that one was turning the pages of a prospectus, looking at columns of boring commercial advertisements, among which suspect announcements nestled like parasites, together with dubious notices and illustrations with a double meaning. And one’s wandering proved as sterile and pointless as the excitement produced by a close study of pornographic albums.

If one entered for example a tailor’s shop to order a suit-a suit of cheap elegance characteristic of the district-one found that the premises were large and empty, the rooms high and colourless. Enormous shelves rose in tiers into the undefined height of the room and drew one’s eyes towards the ceiling which might be the sky-the shoddy, faded sky of that quarter. On the other hand the storerooms which could be seen through the open door, were stacked high with boxes and crates-an enormous filing cabinet rising to the attic to disintegrate into the geometry of emptiness, into the timbers of a void. The large grey windows, ruled like the pages of a ledger, did not admit daylight yet the shop was filled with a watery anonymous grey light which did not throw shadows and did not stress anything. Soon, a slender young man appeared, astonishingly servile, agile and compliant, to satisfy one’s requirements and to drown one in the smooth flow of his cheap sales talk. But when, talking all the time, he unrolled an enormous piece of cloth, fitting, folding and draping the stream of material, forming it into imaginary jackets and trousers, that whole manipulation seemed suddenly unreal, a sham comedy, a screen ironically placed to hide the true meaning of things.

The tall dark salesgirls, each with a flaw in her beauty (appropriately for that district of remaindered goods), came and went, stood in the doorways watching to see whether the business entrusted to the experienced care of the salesman had reached a suitable point. The salesman simpered and pranced around like a transvestite. One wanted to lift up his receding chin or pinch his pale powdered cheek as with a stealthy meaningful look he discreetly pointed to the trademark on the material, a trademark of transparent symbolism.

Slowly the selection of the suit gave place to the second stage of the plan. The effeminate and corrupted youth, receptive to the client’s most intimate stirrings, now put before him a selection of the most peculiar trade marks, a whole library of labels, a cabinet displaying the collection of a sophisticated connoisseur. It then appeared that the outfitter’s shop was only a facade behind which there was an antique shop with a collection of highly questionable books and private editions. The servile salesman opened further storerooms, filled to the ceiling with books, drawings and photographs. These engravings and etchings were beyond our boldest expectations: not even in our dreams had we anticipated such depths of corruption, such varieties of licentiousness .

The salesgirls now walked up and down between the rows of books, their faces, like grey parchment, marked with the dark greasy pigment spots of brunettes, their shiny dark eyes shooting out sudden zigzag cockroachy looks. But even their dark blushes, the piquant beauty spots, the traces of down on their upper lips betrayed their thick, black blood. Their over-intense colouring, like that of an aromatic mocca, seemed to stain the books which they took into their olive hands, their touch seemed to run on the pages and leave in the air a dark trail of freckles, a smudge of tobacco, as does a truffle with its exciting, animal smell.

In the meantime, lasciviousness had become general. The salesman, exhausted by his eager importuning, slowly withdrew into feminine passivity. He now lay on one of the many sofas which stood between the bookshelves, wearing a pair of deeply cut silk pyjamas. Some of the girls demonstrated to one another the poses and postures of the drawings on the book-jackets, while others settled down to sleep on makeshift beds. The pressure on the client had eased. He was now released from the circle of eager interest and left more or less alone. The salesgirls, busy talking, ceased to pay any attention to him. Turning their backs on him they adopted arrogant poses, shifting their weight from foot to foot, making play with their frivolous footwear, abandoning their slim bodies to the serpentine movements of their limbs and thus laid siege to the excited onlooker whom they pretended to ignore behind a show of assumed indifference. This retreat was calculated to involve the guest more deeply, while appearing to leave him a free hand for his own initiative.

But let us take advantage of that moment of inattention to escape from these unexpected consequences of an innocent call at the tailor’s, and slip back into the street.

No one stops us. Through the corridors of books, from between the long shelves filled with magazines and prints, we make our way out of the shop and find ourselves in that part of Crocodile Street where from the higher level one can see almost its whole length down to the distant, as yet unfinished buildings of the railway station. It is, as usual in that district, a grey day, and the whole scene seems at times like a photograph in an illustrated magazine, so grey, so one-dimensional are the houses, the people and the vehicles. Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character. At times one has the impression that it is only the small section immediately before us that falls into the expected pointillistic picture of a city thoroughfare, while on either side, the improvised masquerade is already disintegrating and, unable to endure, crumbles behind us into plaster and sawdust, into the lumber room of an enormous, empty theatre. The tenseness of an artificial pose, the assumed earnestness of a mask, an ironical pathos tremble on this facade.

But far be it from us to wish to expose this sham. Despite our better judgment we are attracted by the tawdry charm of the district. Besides, that pretense of a city has some of the features of self-parody. Rows of small, one-storey suburban houses alternate with many-storeyed buildings which, looking as if made of cardboard, are a mixture of blind office windows, of grey-glassed display windows, of fascia, of advertisements and numbers. Among the houses the crowds stream by. The street is as broad as a city boulevard, but the roadway is made, like village squares, of beaten clay, full of puddles and overgrown with grass. The street traffic of that area is a by-word in the city; all its inhabitants speak about it with pride and a knowing look. That grey, impersonal crowd is rather self-conscious of its role, eager to live up to its metropolitan aspirations. All the same, despite the bustle and sense of purpose, one has the impression of a monotonous, aimless wandering, of a sleepy processing of puppets. An atmosphere of strange insignificance pervades the scene. The crowd flows lazily by, and, strange to say, one can see it only indistinctly; the figures pass in gentle disarray, never reaching complete sharpness of outline. Only at times do we catch among the turmoil of many heads a dark vivacious look, a black bowler hat worn at an angle, half a face split by a smile formed by lips which had just finished speaking, a foot thrust forward to take a step and fixed for ever in that position.

A peculiarity of that district are the cabs without coachmen, driving along unattended. It is not as if there were no cabbies, but mingling with the crowd and busy with a thousand affairs of their own, they do not bother about their carriages. In that area of sham and empty gestures no one pays much attention to the precise purpose of a cab ride and the passengers entrust themselves to these erratic conveyances with the thoughtlessness which characterizes everything here. From time to time one can see them at dangerous corners, leaning far out from under the broken roof of a cab as, with the reins in their hands, they perform with some difficulty the tricky manoeuvre of overtaking.

There are also trams here. In them the ambition of the city councillors has achieved its greatest triumph. The appearance of these trams, though, is pitiful, for they are made of papier mache with warped sides dented from the misuse of many years. They often have no fronts, so that in passing one can see the passengers, sitting stiffly and behaving with great decorum. These trams are pushed by the town porters. The strangest thing of all is, however, the railway system in the Street of Crocodiles.

Occasionally, at different times of day towards the end of the week, one can see groups of people waiting at a crossroads for a train. One is never sure whether the train will come at all or where it will stop if it does. It often happens therefore that people wait in two different places, unable to agree where the stop is. They wait for a long time standing in a black, silent bunch alongside the barely visible lines of the track, their faces in profile: a row of pale cut-out paper figures, fixed in an expression of anxious peering.

At last the train suddenly appears: one can see it coming from the expected side street, low like a snake, a miniature train with a squat, puffing locomotive. It enters the black corridor, and the street darkens from the coal dust scattered by the line of carriages. The heavy breathing of the engine and the wave of a strange sad seriousness, the suppressed hurry and excitement transform the street for a moment into the hall of a railway station in the quickly falling winter dusk.

A black market in railway tickets and bribery in general are the especial plagues of our city.

At the last moment, when the train is already in the station, negotiations are conducted in nervous haste with corrupt railway
officials. Before these are completed, the train starts, followed slowly by a crowd of disappointed passengers who accompany it a long way down the line before finally dispersing.

The street, reduced for a moment to form an improvised station filled with gloom and the breath of distant travel, widens out again, becomes lighter and again allows the carefree crowd of chattering passers-by to stroll past the shop windows-those dirty grey squares filled with shoddy goods, tall wax dummies and barbers’ dolls.

Showily dressed in long lace-trimmed gowns, prostitutes have begun to circulate. They might even be the wives of hairdressers or restaurant band-leaders. They advance with a brisk rapacious step, each with some small flaw in her evil corrupted face; their eyes have a black, crooked squint, or they have hare-lips, or the tips of their noses are missing.

The inhabitants of the city are quite proud of the odour of corruption emanating from Crocodile Street. “There is no need for us to go short of anything, ” they say proudly to themselves, “we even have truly metropolitan vices.” They maintain that every woman in that district is a tart. In fact, it is enough to stare at any of them, and at once you meet an insistent clinging look which freezes you with the certainty of fulfilment. Even the schoolgirls wear their hair-ribbons in a characteristic way and walk on their slim legs with a peculiar step, an impure expression in their eyes that foreshadows their future corruption.

And yet, and yet-are we to betray the last secret of that district, the carefully concealed secret of Crocodile Street?

Several times during our account we have given warning signals, we have intimated delicately our reservations. An attentive reader will therefore not be unprepared for what is to follow. We spoke of the imitative, illusory character of that area, but these words have too precise and definite a meaning to describe its half-baked and undecided reality.

Our language has no definitions which would weigh, so to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness. Let us say it bluntly: the misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Gestures hang in the air, movements are prematurely exhausted and cannot overcome a certain point of inertia. We have already noticed the great bravura and prodigality in intentions, projects and anticipations which are one of the characteristics of the district. It is in fact no more than a fermentation of desires, prematurely aroused and therefore impotent and empty. In an atmosphere of excessive facility, every whim flies high, a passing excitement swells into an empty parasitic growth; a light grey vegetation of fluffy weeds, of colourless poppies sprouts forth, made from a weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish. Over the whole area there floats the lazy licentious smell of sin, and the houses, the shops, the people seem sometimes no more than a shiver on its feverish body, the gooseflesh of its febrile dreams. Nowhere as much as there do we feel threatened by possibilities, shaken by the nearness of fulfilment, pale and faint with the delightful rigidity of realization. And that is as far as it goes.

Having exceeded a certain point of tension, the tide stops and begins to ebb, the atmosphere becomes unclear and troubled, possibilities fade and decline into a void, the crazy grey poppies of excitement scatter into ashes.

We shall always regret that, at a given moment, we had left the slightly dubious tailor’s shop. We shall never be able to find it again. We shall wander from shop sign to shop sign and make a thousand mistakes. We shall enter scores of shops, see many which are similar. We shall wander along shelves upon shelves of books, look through magazines and prints, confer intimately and at length with young women of imperfect beauty, with an excessive pigmentation who yet would not be able to understand our requirements.

We shall get involved in misunderstandings until all our fever and excitement have spent themselves in unnecessary effort, in futile pursuit. Our hopes were a fallacy, the suspicious appearance of the premises and of the staff were a sham, the clothes were real clothes and the salesman had no ulterior motives. The women of Crocodile Street are depraved to only a modest extent, stifled by thick layers of moral prejudice and ordinary banality. In that city of cheap human material, no instincts can flourish, no dark and unusual passions can be aroused.

The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year’s mouldering newspapers.

Bruno Schulz

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