Loitering or Hanging Out? The difference between flâner and rôder?


Last week on my way home I was serenaded twice. A group at the train station was listening to recorded music and singing. However, they were noisy and I didn't like their music. I would not have protested if an officer had asked them to move on. A different group serenaded me in the tram with musical instruments and singing. In addition, the group in the tram asked for money. I didn't protest; I liked their music and contributed. I would not have been pleased if an officer had asked them to stop and leave the tram.

"Summertime and the livin' is easy." After the long winter months and rainy spring, the fine weather encourages everyone to get out. The beaches and pools are crowded; restaurant terraces are overflowing; kids frolic in the parks; music is everywhere.

Not everyone is pleased to see everyone outside. Certain areas of Geneva have become centers for people who have no other place to go. Being outside is not just taking advantage of the fine weather, for some being outside is the only place to be. The exuberance of some is frowned upon by others.

What is the difference between hanging out and loitering? The difference between flâner and rôder? Hanging out is being in a public place with others, a sort of common get together, a place to meet and socialize. It could be at the marché, it could be a place in a park, it could be a favorite café or restaurant, it could be around the train station. I used to hang out at "the rail" in northern New York City. Kids, adolescents and adults all understand the importance of hanging out, although different age groups use a different vocabulary.

Loitering is something different. The technical definition is "to remain in an area for no obvious reason." But how does one decide if someone is just hanging out or loitering? What is the "obvious reason" for hanging out? Loitering is illegal in New York City when someone gambles, is masked or disguised, remains around an educational institute with no clear purpose, remains in a transportation facility for soliciting or singing or playing a musical instrument. Recently, the City of New York had to pay $15 million to loiterers arrested illegally since 1983. A Federal judge ruled that a 1964 NY law against loitering was in violation of the Constitution's First Amendment freedom of movement and expression. I vividly remember in the 1960s when people had only 5 minutes to "hang out" after which they could be accused of loitering.

The group playing loud music was not loitering in a technical sense, although the music was blaring. I understood their summer enthusiasm; I just didn't like their music. The group in the tram was infringing on my space by playing music in a closed area; if they had been playing poorly or music I didn't like, I would have been offended. As it was, I was pleased to listen to them. Years ago I used to have long conversations with a tram serenader. I really liked his rhythm and blues guitar.

Loitering or hanging out? Up to a certain point, the difference is really in the eyes of the beholder. It is a subjective decision about what constitutes gathering in a public place to hang out or what constitutes loitering and a public nuisance. Public places are public places, but that does not mean that anything goes. People who hang out have their rights, but, as part of the public, so do I.

July 30, 2012



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