By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — My last two months in Paris had not gone as expected. The first surprise was that I did not experience the exhilaration I’d expected when I’d stepped out of the Gare Montparnasse. Montparnasse! How could anyone, above all an American who had always felt the thread going back to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, not be moved? (My second place in Paris, just two months into my stay, was next to the Pasteur Institute in the 15th arrondisement — where the AIDS or SIDA virus had been identified — and thus not too far away from Montparnasse; I’d tried to find the bar on the rue Delambre where Fitzgerald and Hemingway had met, but it had changed hands so many times it was hard to distinguish. I’d settled with “Smoke,” on the other side of the street — not where Scott and Ernest met but, with its pony-tailed Chinese bartender who looked like Wayne Wang, a fitting faux dive in which to smoke my first Cuban, a fact I’d announced to the bartender before correctly guessing that the blues on the juke was “Albert King!”)
What was askew for me on this May 2010 return, though, was that this was the first time I was neither returning to cats or with cats. Sonia, my 20-something Alaska native Siamese — I always said that she and her soul brother Mesha were part-Wolf, born on the tundra (in Alaska, people invariably introduced the tired old mutt stretched out on the hearth as ‘part wolf’) — had finally run out of life, after living 14 of them. (Her last escape being when our last small heater suddenly shot out sparks at her — Sonia’s hind legs had gone out when we entered 2010 and she her fourth decade, so I had placed her blanket next to the heater.) The last of the family I’d arrived with nine years earlier — Mesha had gone in 2007, after a two-week period where he lost function after function, Hopey three months later screaming in my arms — was gone. Sonia had been my train-mate for the last three years, as we moved or travelled from Les Eyzies, the capital of prehistory in the Dordgone department of SW France where we’d spent the past three years, to Montpellier and Paris, back and forth from Perigueux (the nondescript capital of the Dordogne), and a second extended trip to Paris the previous spring. Taking the train without her for this last return wracked and wrenched me. I lost it when I saw a woman with a dog in a sweater on the platform in le Bugue waiting for the train to Bordeaux. I had no one. (And as if this wasn’t enough, Boo-bah, the neighbor’s Australian shepherd/collie dog I’d adapted and who had been a particular solace to me after Sonia left, had been killed by hot-rodding youngsters the night before my departure.)
For a while — two weeks to be exact — I’d received a reprieve from this loneliness in the form of Sophie, the neighbor with whom the keys to his place had been left by Marcel, the bouquiniste – Seine-side bookseller — who I’d imagined to be my best friend. (Romanticizing Marcel because I liked it was cool to have a buddy who was a bouquiniste – one more indice that I was vraiment living the vie Parisien — I’d ignored his faults, and all the times he’d let me down before, and this was about to blow up in my face.) Sophie and I had bonded right away — she’d even given me the keys to her place the first night so I could use her state-of-the-art Mac — but it had really been too easy. It was the bond of someone looking for a life-vest and within two weeks she was trying to drag me down with her. (First hint should have been when in our initial conversation she informed me she was emerging from a depression — most French people won’t talk about such personal things after five years of acquaintanceship, let alone ten minutes. Second should have been the note she left for me on her desk two days later saying she’d checked herself into the mental hospital but, “Not to worry.”) Things got worse when Marcel came back briefly from Russia before heading off to Siberia. I won’t supply the details because the wounds — the profound disappointment, oh how I’d missed him those last three years — are still too raw and I don’t know that they’re that interesting to anyone else. Suffice to say that an angel turned out to be, if not a devil, a bully.
This was not the light and charming Paris that had been my life — at least as I remembered it — the six years I’d lived at 49 rue de Paradis. Camille, the co-ed neighbor from a tiny village in the Lot, in Paris studying at the Ecole du Louvre, with whom I’d nearly set the apartment on fire when the cooking alcohol spilled all over the fondue set when I made her fondue bourgignone, Camille, to whom I’d confessed my love, her eyes opening in marvel as I took her hand after we watched Renoir’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” was gone, moved to Marseille for school and not returning my e-mails. Omar, the light-hearted, hilarious buddy I’d met when he was a bartender at Le Valmy, was not returning my calls. Sandrine, my first friend, whose apartment at 33 rue Lamartine I’d subletted as our first, the cats running under the beds to hide as soon as we got there (at the airport, as if on cue a little French girl in red crinoline had looked into their cages and exlaimed, “Maman, maman! Des chats!”) — I’d later learn Baudelaire also roomed there — was busy with a new boyfriend and the end of the year crunch at the school where she taught drama. (When Sandrine reproached me for attracting and being attracted to unstable people like Sophie and Marcel, practically blaming me for the mess I’d unwittingly walked into, I’d wanted to say, “Well, where were you the first two weeks I was back?”) Katia, the Paris Opera Ballet dancer whom I’d befriended when we worked together on a project to properly remember Marie Taglioni, the first ballet dancer to dance on pointe, on her 200th anniversary — after collecting pointe shoes from dancers around the world to lay on Taglioni’s crumbling grave at the Montmartre cemetery behind Nijinksy’s and down the block from Truffaut’s, we’d unearthed the fact that contrary to city of Paris claims, it was not Taglioni, but her mother that was buried in Montmartre; Taglioni was over at Pere Lachaise, where her grandson had moved her revered bones from Marseille in 1932 to entomb her with the husband who, according to an account by Edgar Allen Poe, had barred her from her home because she would not stop dancing) — Katia also was not responding to my invitations to get together.
Bref, I was fast coming to the conclusion that my connection with living French people was not as strong as it was to dead French people — particularly figures like Bernhardt, Montand, De Gaulle — and their country’s artifacts. The ones I’d collected, including dozens and dozens of Pastis 51 and other Pastis glasses, carafes, and ashtrays, the historic speeches of General De Gaulle, and Bernhardt’s personal mirror (scored at a vide grenier on the rue Germaine Pilon in Montmartre; Sarah had given it to her personal make-up artist who gave it to the father of the man selling it, who had been a photographer of artists, when she was living in a retirement home for artists), and more were in the house in Les Eyzies, which had been repossessed by its owner, gone crazy after his wife died of alcoholism and, after I’d already left for Paris, e-mailed me that I would not be able to come back. My music collection, garnered over 35 years and essential to my work as a DJ (monikers MC World Beat and DJ Yo Mama), was there too, and I was worried about how I’d get it back if I had to leave France, a distinct possibility as my work as an arts journalist — two strikes in the current climate — was not sufficient to maintain me here.
In sum, I had begun to wonder whether I might not be person number 248 to die on the streets of Paris. Such was the hopeless state I found myself in the morning Juliette and her music parachuted into my life just two blocks from the Pere Lachaise cemetery where both Bernhardt and Taglioni were enterred.
Persisting in trying to conjure up my old life, I’d walked the long distance to my old cafe d’hab, Le Valmy, up top the Canal Saint-Martin, where I’d met Omar. But this only reminded me, painfully, that this was not my old life, my family, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, were no longer here, I would not go home to them on the rue de Paradis once I finished my noisette.
To return to my current place, Marcel’s bad karma-infested joint off the place Edith Piaf, surrounded by his books (he’d put his statue “L’Esperance” in the cave before he left for Siberia; yes, hope had been relegated to the basement; another tomb) I normally followed the canal to the rue de Temple, stopping along the way to watch a boat glide under a bridge from a lock, then up the rue Belleville, right over to the parc Belleville and the most spectacular view of the Eiffel, then up to the rue des Pyrenees and over to the place Piaf, surveilled by her statue. I decided to change the routine and continue along the green strip in the middle of the boulevard Richard Lenoir — where Simenon’s Maigret had ‘lived’ for years (even Maigret had Mrs. Maigret) — did I mention I sometimes felt closer to historical French figures than living French people? — which covers the water as it continues its course to the Bastille before ultimately pouring into the Seine. Then left at the rue Chemin Vert, continuing on past the smutty but sophisticated erotic bookstore (diversions are essential on a long long walk), intending to either walk past or through Pere Lachaise to the Place Gambetta before heading ‘home’ to Piaf.
I was just two blocks from the cemetery when I noticed a small, slightly worn black valise sitting on top of a cabinet in front of an apartment building, evidently discarded. At first I thought to grab it as a nice jewelry box for Sophie (I was not completely free of her spell; she was crazy and depressed and destructive, but on a good day she was the spittin’ image of Juliette Binoche). Then I thought…what if…there’s something inside…I unlatched the valise and looked inside. It was filled with music — cassettes. And that wasn’t all. Before I investigated further I decided to take the valise up to Pere Lachaise, where I found a sort of concrete ledge-bench just inside the first entrance, put the box on my lap and opened it.
The cassettes weren’t just any music. They were my music. Music that had been important to me in one way or another over the past 40 years:
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.
Bob Marley’s “Legend,” with his greatest, including “Could You Be Loved.”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Canada – Intuit Games and Songs (which went with my Native-oriented sojourn in Alaska.
The Doors, “In Concert” and “L.A. Women.” (This just two blocks from where Jim Morrison was interred, at Pere Lachaise.)
Led Zeppelin/Led Zeppelin — the classic album with “Stairway to Heaven,” my teenage anthem, “Going to California,” and more.
Two full tapes of the Grateful Dead recorded live. (As Deadheads know, the Grateful Dead didn’t just tolerate, but encouraged ‘bootleg’ recordings at its concerts, even setting aside an area upfront for the ‘tape-heads.’ As the band was more a live than a studio band, these recordings are emblematic; they spread the Dead gospel, making it the most successful touring band in U.S. history.) One set was from the Oakland Coliseum in 1990 – corresponding more or less with my own belated Deadhead period, when I was dating the widow of one of the group’s lawyers. Another was from the 1991 memorial service for Bill Graham, who I’d interviewed. Among the many tiny notes handwritten on the cassette liner — in English — were “More than 500,000 people!” referring to this event. And “rarities from the vaults,” including, evidently from the ’60s, a duet with Jon Hendricks (who I’d see later in San Francisco performing “Evolution of the Blues” when I was in junior high school; Hendricks had participated in the Normandy landing on Omaha Beach) on “These are your sons and daughters” and “Fire in the City,” and Kesey, Neal Cassady, and Ken Nordine.
But the real kicker — and where the question of angelic intervention stopped being a question but a certainty — was that the box also included the soundtrack to… “Wings of Desire,” the Wim Wenders film all about angels come to earth to aid, even if just by invisible whispering, comfort the desperate and desolate living.
But this was not all.
The valise also contained a black and white passport photograph of an intense looking French woman, hair cut short in the ‘Amelie’ mode popular just after the turn of the millennium, a couple of business cards — evidently hers — a photograph of a building surrounded by snow with the same name from the cards — Juliette — scribbled on back of it. (Judging by the business cards Juliette is some kind of archeologist, so I imagine the photo was taken on an arctic expedition.)
There was also a tape with Juliet Greco on one side and on the other side, “Un homme et une femme,” which I initially thought was from the film but which, on further listening later, appeared to be the voice of Juliet — she of the photo and the business cards – recording a message for her parents and grandparents before committing suicide. (My hope, encouraged by the scrawled “Delires 6eme,” “High school foolishnesses,” on the tape is that she reconsidered, but saved the tape. My practical theory for what all this was doing on the sidewalk is that Juliette had left these things at a boyfriend’s, they’d eventually broken up, and the boyfriend was now evacuating all that was left to him of Juliette. My other theory is that my finding this box with this music was a “Wings of Desire”-genre intervention.)
There was also a thimble, a ruler, a woman’s thin black leather choker, folic acid pills, a tiny metal object that looked like it could have been a triggering device, and a Euro centime (further confirmation that the contents had been left post-2000).
I sent an e-mail to the address on Juliet’s business card and after explaining that I had found this valise at a particularly trying time in my life — with details — said, “So either this is yours or it fell from the sky for me.” (I guess I imagined myself as Antoine in “Love on the Run,” the fifth and last in Truffaut’s Antoine cycle begun with “The 400 Blows,” in which Antoine meets his Ame-soeur by reconstructing a photo a man in a phone booth tears up after violently breaking up with the person on the other end of the line and, using the detective skills gleaned in “Stolen Kisses,” tracks her down.)
Deciding that Juliette was my newest guardian angel, I carried her photo with me in my wallet when I attempted to leave France to return to the US for the second time in a week one month later. Every time my confidence lagged that I would ever make it out, or that I began to doubt my decision, I took my wallet out and looked at the picture of Juliette, who told me I had to make it back because someone in the States needed me, and because Juliette wanted to see the Bethesda Fountain in New York, which the angels had been hearing about since it played a central role in “Angels in America,” for its healing power. There was a moment in the Madrid airport where a U.S. security agent almost didn’t let me on the plane because all I had as ID was my withered passport; an echo in JFK border control when I got passed around by three officers — more amused than concerned — because the lady in Madrid had apparently sent a note which popped up when they entered my passport number — before I was finally able to exit, whereupon I kissed the filthy beautiful New York ground. When I got to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park the next day, after 24 hours in which I’d already been washed in the healing love and welcome of four friends and colleagues — including my oldest friend J., who I’d known since junior high and when we acted in plays (she was Anne Frank to my Peter, she a civil war wife to my Union captain), and who thus reminded me of who I was, and that I had not been weak but persistently, and consistent with my character, strong and determined — I took out my wallet, where I kept the photo of Juliet as well as that of Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, and, in the midst of a business meeting, sitting on the scorching rim of the fountain on the hottest July 7 in NYC history, discretely faced Juliette’s photo towards the fountain. The kitties bells on their collars I kept dangling on my wrist wrang out. We were home.