Photo: On a bus in Paris, by Mathieu Matiu via Flickr

When I was in college in Bangalore, my poetry teacher gave us this assignment: live deliberately. She gave no other instructions, except to keep a diary of our thoughts and observations. I had no idea what it meant to “live deliberately” — the assignment seemed vague and frustrating — but I began to write down random things uncertainly, things that I noticed on my daily commute from my parents’ house to college, the same two-bus transfer twice a day. In being forced to write, I began to notice more. I noticed a girl get on the bus and immediately take off her cardigan to reveal a top I imagined her parents wouldn’t want her wearing, and switch out the SIM card in her phone for one they probably didn’t know about. I noticed how people would quietly, efficiently consult each other about where they were getting off and then arrange themselves into a loose line down the aisle. I noticed the musical sound of the bus stop peanut seller’s metal spoon against the pot when he tossed the roasted nuts, the same two-beat trill every five minutes, all day. Once the woman sitting next to me let me fall asleep on her shoulder for several stops; she did not budge till I woke up. I wrote it all down.

Who had given the girl the extra SIM card? I imagined it was a boy, and that they were skipping school to spend the day together and go to the cinema. What were they going to see? Where did the woman I fell asleep on live? Had I made her miss her stop? Was the peanut seller annoyed that I smiled at his music every day but never bought peanuts? “What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?” writes Georges Perec in his short book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. “How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious?” I think this is what I was trying to work out when I kept my journal, wondering every time I recorded something or someone whether they were worth recording. Once my unease gave way, my journaling habit helped me find comfort in these mundane, unavoidable encounters.

I read Perec’s essay after learning about it in Lauren Elkin’s new book, No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus — a book that is itself a response to Perec’s question. From the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2015, Elkin, working as a teacher in Paris, used the Notes app on her phone to record observations and encounters from her daily commute on the 91 and 92 buses, transferring in Montparnasse. “The goal was to observe the world through the screen of my phone, rather than to use my phone to distract myself from the world,” she writes. “Along the way I thought a lot about how people live together, and experience trauma on an everyday level.” This, because during her year of documenting there were two terrorist attacks in Paris: in January 2015 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a nearby supermarket, killing 17 people, and another one that November, a series of coordinated attacks around Paris and Saint-Denis that left 130 dead. “The hardest thing to make sense of was how in an instant, the everyday can become an Event,” Elkin writes.

More often than not, the everyday is not exceptional. On the bus, a man in front of Elkin is absorbed in a series of long text messages, and she wonders whether he’s going through a breakup or making dinner plans. A woman asks if her scarf looks alright, and Elkin feels flattered to be consulted, then nervous that she gave the wrong response. People give up, and do not give up, their seats for pregnant women. A woman chases a bus down the block in order to return a phone a boy has just dropped. Another woman absently practices piano scales on her handbag. One day a man brings a cat onto the bus.

Elkin’s notes were inspired by a message from the public transport operator, Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, recommending “vigilance” when using one’s phone in public, lest it be stolen. Freely interpreting this instruction, Elkin writes: “I will be vigilant when using it. I will carry out a public transport vigil.” Her notes are written with the breathlessly impatient, stream-of-consciousness tone of online communication, and the notes themselves are keenly alive and present, documenting rapid impressions.

Jotting every passing thought down in a notebook is its own valuable practice but using a smartphone to document the everyday seems particularly fitting because it’s more ubiquitous, and thus perhaps more synonymous with the everyday, than pen and paper. A phone can accept our minds on autopilot in a way a notebook might not, while enabling us to blend completely into our environment.

“At least all my ideas are searchable,” Elkin wrote in an essay for Granta, about switching her notes from her Moleskine to her phone. “My phone itself has become my commonplace book. This isn’t ideal — and with enough time and leisure I much prefer writing on paper — but it’s my pragmatic reality.” When I was filling my journal in public, it was conspicuous, and sometimes I was self-conscious about it; a phone probably would not have attracted nearly so much attention. Perhaps this leaves room for more “deliberate” observation: for witnessing, in real time, the “everyday” becoming “an Event.”

Over the course of the year she is writing these notes, Elkin is reading and teaching Perec’s Attemp. (In her Granta essay, she wrote that, upon first encountering Perec’s form, “I was emboldened to think that a diary I kept on my phone on the bus could actually be a book that people might be curious enough to read.”) Perec wrote in a notebook over the course of one weekend in 1974 from various café windows and terraces at Place Saint-Sulpice; for the most part it is a real-time catalogue of the mundane things that happen in his field of vision: “A 63 passes by. Six sewer workers (hard hats and high boots) take rue des Canettes. Two free taxis at the taxi stand.” This isn’t exactly the same form Elkin uses, but the spirit is similar; the images are somewhat flimsy and skeletal. It seems logical that reading such observations with the remove of time and place would leach them of meaning, but in their ephemerality Perec’s and Elkin’s observations feel specific and ageless.

One of Elkin’s students asks her who would read a plotless, narrative-free catalogue like Perec’s. Elkin explains that it is “less a means of writing for someone, and more a means of making sense of the world. Like: things are out of control. Slow down. Count the buses. Pattern the world.” Elkin doesn’t acknowledge that her own account might raise the same question — after all, what is the meaning for me, in the New York City of 2021, of knowing that in 2014 Paris a woman got on a bus wearing a blue tutu and fake eyelashes, holding a Chanel bag? — but her defense of Perec serves her own project as well. The notes are not meant to stand alone. They form a pattern, revealing a specific way of reading the world. In documenting every unimportant thing within his field of vision, Perec is drawing attention to “all the rest” — every equally unimportant thing happening just outside of it.

Perec, too, believed we needed to be more vigilant about our own physical existence. “We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep,” he wrote, “but where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?” His Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OULIPO, or Workshop of Potential Literature) was a loosely organized group of writers and mathematicians who attempted to create texts using constrained patterns and techniques. “Oulipans” attempted to explore not what literature was, but what it could be. Traditional narrative, Perec argued, served to make the horrors of everyday life seem exceptional, extraordinary. But “the daily papers talk of everything except the daily … what’s scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coal mines.”

Perec’s experimental form used banal, fleeting details in active rebellion against formal, traditional narratives and the way they hijack reality. Such a text, much like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project about a Paris of the previous century, would not tell a story about a place so much as capture what it felt like to live in it. Elkin’s text shares many of the same limits and potential, though she doesn’t explicitly make this comparison. It doesn’t offer a universal, linear story — but perhaps there is no way a traditional narrative could fully make sense of the catastrophe of the terrorist attacks, because it would not also be recording the everyday miracles and tragedies that, in an instant, became the catastrophe.

The cohabitation of strangers takes on new meaning after the attacks. People are jumpier, but they look at each other with more care; on the bus, “warm people pressed against each other’s bodies, like some kind of wordless woolly love-in.” Even after the “everyday” becomes “an Event,” people continue their lives and their routines, “buying food, drinking in cafés, carrying shopping bags.” They still run to catch their bus, plead with the driver to let them on at traffic lights. They push through the extraordinary with the ordinary, the “infra-ordinary.” This is what Elkin’s and Perec’s forms, in their distinct but overlapping ways, seem to do, and call for: pushing through. “In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential,” Perec writes. Other people can be intolerable on public transit, but they can be a comfort at the same time. They fill a raw need that we don’t always recognize.

Guy Debord wrote of the importance of the dérive, whereby people “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” Debord’s ideas became central to the Situationist International movement, which attempted to re-ground expression in lived experience. Perec was a contemporary of the Situationists and his workshop of potential literature shared many of the same concerns: In a dérive there is no narrative; one is always carried forward by the next encounter, and the next, each one bursting with potential: As Elkin writes, “In the city we are forever brushing sleeves with our other possible selves.”

The dérive doesn’t just carry us from one moment to the next, though; it expands these fleeting moments, unfurls them to reveal the entire potential worlds held within them. A careful recording of every man, woman, child, dog, bus, taxi, and thing to pass by the window of a coffee shop is Perec’s unfurling of the world, stretching out time in order to make room for the essential. This process never ends; it is defined by everything that cannot be documented, by the potential itself: because when one thing is recorded, something else is always missed.

The stakes of this are enormous. It matters when we wonder about the rest of the scene, about everything just out of sight — when we wonder, long after an encounter with a woman who asked if her scarf looked alright, if someone else later told her that it did not; when we wonder whether the man reading his messages in front of us is making elaborate dinner plans or going through a breakup. This is how we slowly try to fill in the blanks in others’ lives, and we have to fill in these blanks because — as Elkin observes a few months after the terror attacks, in a final, more extensive journal entry, one written outside the range of dates that delineate the boundaries of her main project — “peace is only possible when both sides acknowledge the enemy’s right to an everyday, to an infra-ordinary.” It is far easier to be cruel to a series of blank spaces, to those whom we refuse to see.

In the fall of 2016, several years after I stopped writing in my journal of deliberate living on Bangalore buses, I was sitting on a J train at Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. As the door to the car began to close, a teenaged boy holding a basketball leaned against it, keeping it open. The door kept pushing against the boy’s shoulder, attempting to close, and he kept pushing it back. After awhile, people on the train looked at him, in confusion that turned quickly to anger, and then we looked at each other, rolling our eyes; no one wanted a fight, but we needed to make our disapproval known. Eventually an elderly Jamaican woman with a cane entered through the door the boy had been holding open, and he helped her into a seat as the train doors finally slid closed.

I knew the woman he’d let on the train; she lived on my block in Bed-Stuy in those days, and I often saw her on the J as I headed to class in the morning. She was always very well-dressed, with big yellow hoops the color of her cropped hair and smart silk blouses that looked slightly incongruous with the sneakers she had to wear because of her bad knee. She would see me reading my grad school notes and say, “That’s good, girl. You keep your head in your books. You stay off the streets.” “Yes, Miss Myrna,” I would always reply, feeling guilty and ridiculous that she was wasting her worry for young people who got into trouble on the streets, on someone like me.

I have often marveled since then at my unwillingness to consider what was just out of sight, the rest of the scene. Had I been in a different car, or seen only the boy holding up the train and not who he was holding it for, I would have remembered only an inconvenience and not a moment of graciousness; the boy would have simply been a blank space. “Question your teaspoons,” Perec writes. “What is there under your wallpaper?” These are the questions that make up our world; these are questions by which we attempt to “lay hold on our truth.”

Public transportation is in many ways the perfect setting to do this, to see the people we share our city with at their most tender, vulnerable, human. It’s a particular kind of privilege to be able to see almost-private activities in public spaces, sheltered in urban anonymity and the kind of apathy that is more like care than it appears. I appreciate public transit because it means relinquishing all control of my surroundings for at least those hours in the day, being at the mercy of other people’s behavior and schedules. Elkin’s form, and Perec’s, of simply documenting, their “transcription of world into text,” is a way of living and existing together. “Other people are an immense mystery,” Elkin writes, “but that they are going together, while companionably ignoring one another, seems of paramount importance.”

Apoorva Tadepalli

Apoorva Tadepalli has written for The Point, Bookforum, n+1, and elsewhere. She tweets at @storyshaped.

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