Le Monde Entièr Est un Cactus: As Cities Change Rapidly, the Songs Stay the Same

(This essay is inspired by a playlist, which you can listen to on Spotify)

In 1856 Harper’s wrote “Why should New York be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together.” At the time, New Yorkers were collectively undergoing a lot of anguish that their city was growing and changing too rapidly. In ten year periods, the city began to look vastly unrecognizable. Out of this discomfort, membership for the New York Historical Society — founded in 1804 to preserve a sense of the city’s history — grew exponentially. Everyone wanted to remember the city that they knew, the New York that they felt was the most “true.”

That, of course, was 160 years ago. Who knows how New York has changed since then?

Baltimore Street — 1945

One seasonably temperate day in February, my friend Rick invited me, and our friends Osama and Dan to stay the weekend at his apartment in Baltimore. Since New Year’s, Rick had been asking his friends to make music playlists for a bar he had built in his house, called Pernod’s 38. Every month, he’s been releasing these playlists on Spotify. Each has its own feel — understandably so, because none of the people who made the mixes have even been to Pernod’s 38.

That weekend felt like a time warp. We went to old bars and restaurants that in New York are fetishized, crowded, and replicated ad infinitum. But in Baltimore these places were authentic and seemingly undiscovered.

One bar we went to seemed normal enough, until Osama used the bathroom. He noticed, past the stalls, what looked to be an inviting living room with a couch and TV. When we started walking toward it, the old man tending bar asked us, “What are you doing?” We wanted to check out that part of the bar, we told him. He frowned. “That’s not the bar, that’s where I live.”

New York doesn’t really have places like this anymore — and to be honest, if it ever did, I haven’t lived here long enough to know about them. But this old city, Baltimore, felt like a city that was stuck in time, in a place that perhaps New York had also been.

With this in mind, we went to Pernod’s 38, Rick’s bar. When Rick had viewed the apartment before renting it, the landlord stipulated that a portion of it was just a dusty storage unit, crowded with objects long out of use. He added this as if it were a huge drawback, and perhaps a dealbreaker. When Rick saw the storage space, once a garage, he immediately signed the lease.

In the first few months of living there, Rick converted the storage space. There was an old pool table that was in good shape. He bought a collection of vintage pool balls, organized all the junk, filled it with junk that he himself had collected over the years, and cleaned everything as best he could. Like the best Cy Twombly paintings, everything looked scattered without looking out of place or accidental.

Cy Twombly — Hero and Leander (To Christopher Marlowe), 1985

When we went into Pernod’s 38, it was as if we wandered into a dreamland. In the middle of the day, it looked like midnight in 1856. Rick put the latest playlist on and we spent most of the weekend there.

It is with some difficulty that I have thought back on that weekend in Baltimore. Clearly, it’s a position of privilege that allows me to sentimentalize the city. The old man who lived in the back of the bar did not speak of his “authentic” space admiringly; he just ran a bar out of his house to survive. Where I see magical bars and restaurants, the people who have lived in Baltimore their whole lives see strife and derelict buildings.

But, reading that quote in Harper’s magazine, I know that it isn’t something new, or unique. Of course, the changing “soul” of a city is one thing, whereas gentrification and lack of affordable housing is completely another, but these things are inextricably linked. The grand metropolises of the east coast of the U.S. — New York and Baltimore among them — have a long history of being welcoming to the impoverished of the world. So when those attitudes of the city change, and they become rather, playgrounds for the rich, one can argue that they are no longer themselves.

Baltimore in 1856

I hadn’t quite pieced all this together for myself until I listened to the playlist that Rick himself made for Pernod’s 38. As soon as I started listening to it, I realized: of course, Rick made the playlist the most indicative of the space, as no one else has been to that place.

One song on the playlist in particular spoke to me: “Les cactus” by Jacques Dutronc released in 1966. The first lyrics went, in French, “The whole world is a cactus/ It’s impossible to sit down.” Phrased as a joke, the lyric resonated with me, as I had been thinking about living in cities in general.

In the city, it really does feel impossible to sit down. I know so many people who spend a year at a time in their apartments. It feels impossible to make a home in a neighborhood that will stay the same from ten years to the next. New York of the 80s wasn’t like it was in the 90s. And the city of that time period is long gone.

The city is, indeed, a cactus.

Listening to Rick’s playlist for Pernod’s 38, I realized that there is really just one thing that captures the feeling of a place as places are in the process of transitioning or disappearing, just one thing that allows you to hold on to the sentiment of a space and time: music.

A song gains a foothold, and songs phrased in a playlist establish many points and feelings. As has been done by our ancestors, we’ll show these playlists to our offspring and say: These songs are about a place that you will never go to. These places don’t exist anymore.

The city no longer looks as it once did, but the songs sound the same.