The Lutèce Diaries, Eight: In the shadows of our forgotten ancestors, the heart is a lonely hunter

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, The Paris Tribune

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PARIS — The beauty of a mission statement is that it keeps you on track. So, much as it may be justified by later references, my temptation to call this dispatch “C’est quoi dégueulasse? or, I’d rather have my teeth pulled out” was quickly tabled when I remembered that our mission with the Paris Tribune c’est pas de partager mon point de vu sur mes petites disputes avec des services presses but to share my unique insider knowledge of and perspective on all things Parisian. So I’ll just allocate one sentence to the petty stuff, if for no other reason than after having three more teeth extracted Thursday afternoon, I can in all sincerity state that given the choice, I’d rather have my teeth pulled than spend another single evening at the Theatre de la Ville, and that’s not just a testament to the tender manner of my dentist, the best in the world; 20 years of thankless devotion — in critical and editorial work  covering this important venue, which work’s practically volunteer nature has made the difference between having implants and having eight teeth pulled out for an additional denture — only to be spat upon by the Theatre de la Ville, ca suffit. (Okay, I kind of cheated with the semi-colon and the em-dashes.)

So: After having the decaying mandibles extracted, (and on top of the shabby treatment by the theater) rather than subject myself to the exasperation that, based on my last experience at the TDLV’s Abbesses space in Montmartre (in which the members of a Portuguese company railed against their own metier before an audience who had paid to see this self-indulgent temper tantrum) another visit to the same theater might entail, and after securing a slab of sufficiently malleable freshly-baked Lebanese bread at a Turkish grocery store on the rue Faubourg-St.-Denis (food-wise, the most exotic street in Paris), I headed in the other direction, taking the increasingly shallow cavern that is my mouth, my plodding carcasse, mes lourds valises (heavy baggage) and my tired dogs from Pissarro and Montand’s Grand Boulevards to the Place de la Republique, up the rue de Temple to the boulevard Bellevillle, mon amour, where, after stocking up on cheap Ramen (lobster: 40 cents!) clear noodles (44 cents for a two-meal furnishing packet), and Hoisin sauce (1.43 per can) at “The Paris Store” a.k.a. the mecca for all things Chinese, and spicy olives at what now seems to be an Iranian epicerie (when the owner asked another customer, “So, you’re Iranian?” I resisted interjecting that on Grandma Shirley’s side, I apparently am, which explains why Dad was once mistaken for the Ayatollah Khomeini, beard-wise), provisioning myself with the customary Diplomate pastry so I’d have something to glub-glub down after the Novocain wore off, and killing time with about 100,000 dead ancient combatants I finally settled, a bout de souffle and out of breath, at a rendezvous at the gallery of the Genius of the Bastille which terminated with two breathlessly vivacious Parisiennes telling me where all the bodies are really buried.

As I think I’ve just aptly summarized everything up to this point (except for maybe specifying that this adventure did in fact begin with the dentist extracting three teeth), let’s start the rest at the Place de la Republique. I guess it was too much to expect (Don’t look back; you might not turn into a salt lake — that comes up later, with the dead bodies — but you might find yourself staring into the headlights of a ’69 Cadillac Seville ((my first car, my first attempt to park it in New York having halted circulation on the Avenue of the Americas for half an hour)) with a Deadhead sticker left over from your last date with a Deadhead widow) that the stickers left, not by Deadheads but by the living psychological survivors of the 13 November 2015 mass murder on the fringes below the skirt of the Lady of the Republique would still be there, and I would have accepted this cleansing if it had restored the entire classical facade of the statue with its slogans and friezes referencing 1789, but what marred the picture was yet another Packman-style mosaic from the artist whose name I’ve forgotten but who seems to have recently  branched out from clever side-street cameos to marking monuments like a dog pissing on a Cadillac. Universal messages have been replaced by graffiti with artistic pretensions.

Speaking of our sacred dead who died for nothing, or little: So there I was (again), canvas shoulder sack full of provisions, standing in the milieu of the boulevard facing Pere Lachaise, Diplomate in hand until I could feel my lip again so I wouldn’t bite it instead of the pastry, and wondering how I would kill the 50 minutes remaining before the vernissage at the Genie de la Bastille gallery began at 7 (as the teeth extracted were all in the lower front of my mouth, this time around I wouldn’t just be a blood-sucking critic but a critic unable to speak without revealing his wounds, so I’d decided to see how much I could communicate with just the eyes, particularly if the communiqué was a woman), when I spotted it across the street stretching across the entire long block occupied by the front wall of the cemetery: A four-foot high plaque listing, under a citation from Apollinaire — the Surrealist / Cubist poet who, weakened from a head injury sustained in the war, succumbed to the Spanish flu in 1919 — all the names of “les enfants de Paris” who gave their lives during the Grande Guerre, a.k.a. the Grande Gaspillage (waste). Given that every village, even the tiniest burg of 100 people, in France boasts a war memorial listing the names of its sons and daughters dead in the 20th-century’s semi-organized carnages, the real question here was why it took the city of Paris 100 years to give its much more numerous dead a plaque, perhaps yet another indication of what the Yellow Vests and their supporters call the Grande Divide between Paris and the provinces. Foreigners like Malcolm McLaren and me may come to Paris so we can live yesterday tomorrow, but Parisians tend to throw out yesterday, and the ancestors with it; the provinces remember.

Calculating that this would well fill — or fill well — the 50 minutes remaining before the art opening, I determined that starting in 1914 (the names were listed alphabetically and by year) I would read every name. Some of what struck me: A lot of Gauthiers and Gautiers gave their lives for the motherland (patrie) in 1915 or 16; the archivists who culled or tracked down all this information did their homework, even to noting the nicknames — one of the fallen went by ‘La Cressoniere,’ suggesting that it didn’t take until 2019 for Parisians to start growing vegetables; seeing “Actor” after one person’s first name, I thought for a moment that all the metiers would be listed until I realized this was his last name; and, most tragically, after the year-by-year list, which ended in 1925, came a long list of more than 100 whose names were given under “year not known,” presumably meaning they had simply disappeared, lost track of after their deaths.

I’d been curious whether any passing presumably Frenchman or woman would join me in my rather ostentatious gesture (until I abandoned the row by row idea midway through the alphabet in 1916, by my slow progression my intention was clear); only one man did, and after a rudimentary pause beside me in 1914, he cut the line clear to 1917.

At the galerie La Genie de la Bastille the only indications of imminent war were the breadsticks, potato chips, nuts, Japanese-style rice crackers, and hazelnut-studded bread preparing to storm what was left of my lower-teeth if I even thought of nibbling them and incurring the wrath of my dentist (“You said to avoid baguettes. You didn’t say anything about breadsticks.”) and the artist whom the day before I’d addressed as “Narcissus” after he politely asked me to take him out of my address book. Hoping to find someone else I recognized (with whom I’d be less self-conscious about revealing my missing teeth, and maybe even get some commiseration and admiration for coming to the vernissage anyway; “Quelle devotion a l’art!”), the closest I came was a petite blonde woman who resembled a painter I’d previously worked with, that we’d not seen each other for three years explaining the uncertainty. By the way she exchanged semi-embarrassed smiles with me at intervals, I even thought she might be wondering the same thing about me, and opened my coat to reveal the “Obama 2008” button pinned to my “San Francisco Jazz Festival” sweatshirt to give her a hint.

After hovering around her all evening, I realized it was less sinister to simply ask.

“You wouldn’t by any chance be Sylvie?”

“Who’s Sylvie?”

“She’s an artist friend whose work has been featured here.”

“Nope… You’re from San Francisco!”

“How’d you know that?!”

“Your sweatshirt!”

She was soon joined by her friend, whom we’ll call Vanessa, and who exclaimed: “I had a boyfriend in San Francisco!”

“Where in San Francisco?”

“‘Great View’ street!”

“‘Grand View.’ I lived there with a roommate.” (Who was the physical and neurotic embodiment of Robert Downey Jr, the archetypal manic young actor of the late ’80s. I retain a sympathetic image of Robert — I’ve forgotten his real name — looking up expectantly from the couch where he was laying down with a book every time I emerged from the bedroom where I was chatting with my nursery school girlfriend (I mean whom I’d known since nursery school) Laurie Dabkowski, with the universally understood “Have you scored yet?” expression.)

Hoping to score with the two Parisiennes, I brandished my cards.

“Oh, you’re Israeli,” observed Vanessa.

After I’d calmed the bristling hairs on my head, I explained the origins of my last name: How after learning from my grandfather that my birth name was a mistake from when my great-grandmother entered the United States —

“Oh yes, at Long Island!” Vanessa interjected, even getting the Jewish immigrant pronunciation right: “Lon Gyland.”

I clarified that it was Ellis Island where an immigration clerk had changed the ‘V’ in great-grandma’s original name ‘Vinek’ to a ‘W’ and the ‘k’ to an ‘r’ to turn ‘Vinek’ into ‘Winer,’ at which point the other woman, whom I’ll inevitably call “Amelie,” interrupted, “Like Winner! That’s good!”

“No, ‘Winner’ has two ‘n’s. Winer means someone who cries all the time.”

After Amelie nodded and contributed that, “Yes, many Jews emigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century,” Vanessa prodded me, “Your grandparents were from Ukraine, Russia? Odessa!”

Given that my other grandma Shirley, this one on my mother’s side, had left her Odessa Jazz Festival sweatshirt behind in the shtetl, I was flabbergasted. “Mais c’est incroyable (incredible)! How’d you know?”

“I must be psychic, I know these things.”

I then recounted that I’d chosen to change my name to “Ben-Itzak” rather than return to “Vinek” because Jewish names can be traced back to the origin (Ben-Itzak = Son of Isaac).

“You need to go to Salt Lake City, Utah,” Vanessa responded. “The Mormons have built a library with the family origins of all the names around the world.”

At this point Amelie debarked on a Jewish tangent which, far from making me cry was fascinating as a tapestry of French religious/racial, artistic/cultural, and Jewery/jewelry history.

It seems that Amelie’s great-grandmother was a soloist with the Paris Opera Ballet.

“Like Constance Quenieux, the real origin of Courbet’s ‘Origin of the World’ painting,” I piped in, hoping to score a point that was simultaneously salacious and sagacious.

The way she tells it, Amelie’s great-grams slept with either someone named Verer or was introduced by Verer to a famous jeweler from the 1920s whose name sounded something like Lilac (and who I’ve actually heard of)  and as Amelie’s grandmother was likely the product of this illicit relationship, “Therefore, I’m probably part Jewish.”

I resisted the temptation to respond with “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish” or the pedantic, “Actually, the descent is based on the mother,” thus missing an opportunity to demonstrate my male-feminist sympatheticness in a discussion on sexism, instead gambling that a sufficiently intimate footing had been established for me to buck up and explain why I had none (buck teeth), announcing, “If you can’t always understand what I said,” which seemed to be the case with Amelie, “it’s because I just came from the dentist.”

Amelie turned away from me and towards Vanessa, to whom she proclaimed, “You have incredible teeth!,” which I wasn’t sure was meant to denigrate mine or to vaunt Vanessa’s to me, a way of saying “If you don’t have enough teeth,  you can borrow some of my friend’s!” (Which the translation engine at the right of this page will probably render as “Maybe you could burrow some of my friend’s!”)

Trying to elevate the conversation from my missing lower teeth to the omni-present French haute culture, I started to explain how my dentist, who shares his office with his doctor brother, has an American mother, which accounts for the waiting-room poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the Herald Tribune in Jean-Luc Godard’s “A bout de Souffle.”

“I love that film!!” exclaimed Vanessa.

“I’ve only seen scattered morsels,” Amelie half-apologetically confessed.

“You must see it.”

“It’s part of the New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague, isn’t it?”

“Same thing,” Vanessa explained.

Perhaps detecting a window to a potential decidedly New Wave ménage a trois, I announced, “I scored two copies of the film at a sale of books au prix libre (name your price) at the Little Rocket last weekend.” (Taking advantage of name your price so we can empty our stock day at the local anarchist club, for 2 Euros total I’d not only scored two copies of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” but two boxed sets comprising the entire 7th and final season of Mad Men, a CD of early Diz and Bird sessions, a “Lady of Soul” best of Aretha Franklin disc to demonstrate my DJ necrology chops in case I finally get that gig at Pere Lachaise, and — because it was a book sale I had to get at least one — a collection of 50 best short stories. That I couldn’t find an English-language paperback of Carson McCullers’s “Ballad of the Sad Café” I’d initially discarded had been compensated for later that same Saturday evening when my ex-roomie Sabine showed up with newborn baby in tow and a box of things I’d left behind on my last Paris visit, including the Obama button and a copy of a French translation of McCullers’s “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which I’d planned on giving to one of Sabine’s girlfriends who now accidentally lives three doors down from me but won’t return my e-mails, my having been ready to give the book up because I didn’t like the translator’s version of a retrograde “Blackspeak” which couldn’t have been that bad in the original, given that Ethel Waters didn’t talk like that in the same author’s “Member of the Wedding.” Also because the friend in question had explained her last-minute cancellation of our first and last date by conjuring Greta Garbo ((I vant to be alone)) in referring to personal problems which I assumed to be affairs of the heart.)

At this point — we’re back to discussing Godard’s “Breathless,” breathlessly, with the two Parisiennes — with my lacking teeth and flagging end-of-the-day French, I was barely intelligible, but when Vanessa finally understood that it was the sale at the anarchist club on the Street of the Green Path to which I was referring, she pursued, “Why two copies?”

“Well, when I saw the first I of course thought this would be the perfect retirement gift for my dentist.” (At our last rendez-vous, when I’d pointed to the poster of Belmondo flirting with Seberg on the Champs and asked him if he’d planned to take it with him or if I could recuperate it, my dentist had shrugged his shoulders non-committedly.) And I’d no sooner thought, ‘Too bad there’s not a second copy for me’ then one materialized.”

“Incroyable!”

I know, I missed an opening that was big enough for any other American in Paris worthy of Gene Kelly to drive a truck through, in which I could have said: “Well, as I have two copies why don’t we go back to my place; we could watch them in separate rooms and laisse-faire the rest?” (Robert Downie Jr. would have been disappointed in me.) But I’d already overcome a monumental compunction just by opening my Swiss-cheesy mouth to parlez-vous with these two chic Parisiennes — a considerable feat for this shy American even if my choppers had been rocks of Gibraltar. So I had to settle for Vanessa’s proposition of a much safer excavation (than into the cavern of my teeth), that we all go check out a hidden museum whose name I couldn’t distinguish no matter how many times she repeated it, but which seems to have something to do with 19th-century Algerian furniture.

Considering the prospect later, I reflected: If you want to find a home for your lonely hunter, why not build the house with the furniture of your forgotten ancestors?

PS: In case the Parisiennes in question — for whom I’ve adopted fake names here — are reading this piece, they should know that any licentiousness in my thought bubbles is (mostly) de la license poetique… Ditto, as always, en ca qui concerne mes dents and the best dentist in the world. And the art in question at the gallery was by Pascale Chau-Huu and France-Noelle Pellecer, from the latter of whom I’ve requested a sample which we hope to share with you in a future edition. The expo runs through Sunday.

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