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In the courtyard

The courtyard of the original campus building in Saint-Denis, Bâtiment A, was a place of decay. Some kinds of birds were warbling, the streets rumbled, and the light shone down over your shoulders and down the stairs where you sit. In the gutters of the stairs and along their edges, there’s a nest of waste, with hazy crumbs of trickling cement, small hives of cigarette butts, packed white fluff like escaped pillow stuffing, caked dirt, damaged pebbles. Upon this desolate subsoil there are larger, more animate objects: a folded napkin, a burnt-out match, the snapped tip of a plastic coffee stirrer, a stripe of yellow reflective tape, an empty paper sugar-packet trying to flutter. The cement itself is starting to flake and shatter and is divided into triangular scales, and its surface has crumbled and what’s left is grimy and seems never to have been cleaned. I’ve been here a while and it starts to feel historical to me. Across the courtyard is the pavillion of the lunch truck where I met H. and M. for the first time, beside which I interviewed M. the other day, near which I remember once eating with E. while making fun of M. who was sitting with other friends across the courtyard. But today I’m alone, wanting some last dose of phenomenological exposure to the space before leaving, and this solitude, I notice, is relatively socially abnormal, since most people here are sitting in same-sex pairs of (seeming) friends; there’s only one other solitary person, bearded and curly, standing alone at one of the stand-up tables. I avoid his gaze. I also avoid the gaze of the painted faces on the wall beside me, with large eyeballs, somewhere between murals and graffiti, the paint chipped so that part of one eye is missing, and part of a nose, and a faint hint of a cartoony Eiffel Tower.

My very first visit to the Bâtiment A courtyard, June 2009. With Charles Soulié from the Paris 8 Sociology Department.

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