The Lutèce Diaries, 16: Love on the run, heart lies bleeding (unedited and uncensored version)

First sent out by e-mail, and posted today for the first time. After getting more than half-way through with a re-edit seven months later, I’ve decided to leave this piece in its initial, raw, somewhat over-detailed initial state for the sake of authenticity… and for the record. — PB-I, October 23, 2019

PARIS — So there  I was at dusk, heart broken and gums bleeding, teeth throbbing, staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: Francois Truffaut.

In the late French director’s five-film, 20-year saga that began with the 1959 “The 400 Blows” and climaxed with “Love on the Run,” Antoine Doinel, played throughout the cycle by Truffaut’s alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud, is always on the run, often from the women in his life: His mother, his wife (the effervescent Claude Jade, whom Antoine, in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” rightly calls “Peggy Proper” for her prim manners), his girlfriend (Dorothee, who made her debut in “Love on the Run” and would go on to become the French equivalent of Romper Room’s Miss Nancy), his older married mistress (Delphine Seyrig at her glamorous apex), and various intermittent mistresses. The only one he seems to chase, apart from Dorthee’s “Sabine,” whom he loves but whose love seems to scare him (he found her after patching up and tracing a photo of the girl a supposed lover had torn up in a restaurant basement phone booth during an angry break-up call he overheard), is Marie-France Pisier’s “Colette,” who we first meet in Truffaut’s 30-minute contribution to the 1963 multi-director film “Love at 20.”  (They encounter each other at a classical music concert; Antoine is working at the time in a Phillips record factory, with Truffaut letting us see the hot wax being spun into discs. In “Love on the Run,” Antoine finally tracks Dorothee’s Sabine to her work-place. A record shop where couples make-out in listening rooms.) You may remember Pisier as the vengeful sexpot in the movie adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s “The Other Side of Midnight,” in which she introduces an inventive way of hardening an older man’s penis which might have come in handy in my own recent saga if I’d only have remembered it before now.

The first hint that I was starring in a sort of Bizarro universe re-make of, specifically, “Love on the Run” came when the woman in question — you know her as “Vanessa,” whom I described picking up on (although I’ve since learned that she may have been picking up on me) at a vernissage a few blocks from the Pere Lachaise cemetery (cemeteries also figure in the Antoine Doinel cycle; the Montmartre one where Truffaut was eventually buried turns up in three of the five films, notably as the burial place of Antoine’s mother, revealed to him by her former lover as being next to the real tomb of the model for “Camille.”) and right after having three teeth extracted, e-mailed me from the Lyon train station before boarding a train to that city to visit her grandkids (like Antoine, I seem to have unresolved mother issues) to tell me that the night, our first together which had concluded the previous morning, and which we’d both exuded at the time was extraordinary and unique (she’d e-mailed me afterwards that she didn’t understand why we weren’t still together) felt “incomplete” (later she’d call it “inaccomplished”) because I couldn’t or wouldn’t get it up.  (My wording; she didn’t put it so vulgarly.) In the Truffaut film, after Colette calls him from a window on a Lyon-bound train at the Gare de Lyon, where Antoine has just dropped of his son for camp, Antoine jumps on the moving train without a ticket, surprises Colette in her sleeper car right after a fat middle-aged businessman, assuming she’s a prostitute, has rubbed up against her in the aisle (a lawyer, she’d spotted Antoine earlier in the day at the court-house, where with Jade he’d just completed France’s first no-fault divorce, an echo of my parents’ some years earlier). After they catch up, she upbraids him on the revisionist way he recounted their courtship as 20-year-olds in a fictionalized memoir he’s just published — “My family didn’t move in across the street from you, you followed us!” (At the time, Antoine is working as a proofreader at a – literally – underground publisher on a book detailing the 18 minutes when De Gaulle disappeared during the 1968 student-worker uprising. Letters requesting love assignations sent by underground pneumatics also figure in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in this case from Antoine’s older, married lover – his employer’s wife — played by the glamorous Seyrig.) He tries to kiss her, she light-heartedly repels the attempt scolding him, “Antoine, you haven’t changed.” The conductor comes around for tickets, Antoine pulls the emergency chord and jumps off the still moving train. We see the now 34-year-old Antoine running across a field, an echo of the last, poignant, liberating moment in “The 400 Blows,” when a 14-year-old Antoine, having escaped from a youth home/prison, is frozen on screen and in our memories, a broad smile on his face as he runs on a beach, discovering the ocean (the antipathe of Chris Marker’s ocean in “La jete”)  for the first time.

In my own Bizarro universe re-make of the Antoine-Colette train scene, it was Colette who, after having joined me in a mutually agreed upon and extraordinary kiss was jumping from our train.

I was devastated, as I thought we’d also both agreed that what made our first night together magical is that the things other couples often view as preliminary — hand-holding, snuggling, French kissing, hand-kissing — had for us been electric. (I’m purposely avoiding citing the many words and motions we exchanged which confirm this because this piece is not intended as an indictment – “If you don’t love me, what was this?”) After writing her an e-mail to ask why she chose to bring this up in an e-mail as opposed to face to face, and explaining that if you want your partner to get it up, the worse thing you can possibly do is tell him it bothers you that he couldn’t get it up, and that a 57-year-old man can’t just get hard on command, I said she should ask herself, “If he was impotent, would I continue with him?” and if the answer was no, get out. She misinterpreted this in a more dire manner, we made up Friday, but only for her to send me another e-mail Saturday — 20 minutes before she knew I was receiving guests, my artist friends K. & R. for the famous Palestinian and Jamaican chicken twins, breaking up. And adding if I wouldn’t mind returning the scarlet scarf her Islamophobic friend  had left at my home after I asked her and her husband to leave a dinner part I’d hosted for them all when they started going at French Muslims. So it was with misty eyes that I opened the door to K. & R., and found myself confiding my troubles of the heart with friends with whom I’d not yet reached that level of intimacy. Thanks to their and particularly K.’s good humor — leading the conversation to other subjects but ready to go back to consoling me, even suggesting, “We need to find you a woman!” — I did pretty well, considering a germinating girlfriend had just broken up with me by e-mail. But I guess I must have sounded worse than I felt, because when I asked what I should do if she contacted me again, K. said “Drop it! Do you want to end up jumping out a window?!”

After more e-mail exchanges last week, the tenor of which from Vanessa remained mostly consistent — she was still running from the love express our train had become — I finally ceded, agreeing it was better to cut it off as I couldn’t return to the just-friends thing, she sent me an e-mail where she said that she too (as I’d expressed I was) was in tears, that her life had changed since “1/24” — the evening we met at the vernissage — that she’d never be the same again, that she knew she had a problem with loving, that she hoped I’d find someone but that it was probably too late for us.

This of course — the tears — brought me running, and I wrote her to say that I’d been blind, that she maybe thought she had a problem with love but that everything she’d done in my regard — particularly being ready to lose me — was done out of love.

On Friday we had another magical evening, organizing an impromptu, wintry pique-nique on the banks of the Ourcq canal. I assured her I wouldn’t go all out but just bring what was already in the house; as it happened this also included a vintage wooden unfoldable pique-nique table in a valise that came with the apartment. I’d promised her to go no further than a chaste kiss goodnight at the Metro station. “Vanessa and Paul, round two!” she’d blithely announced over the hummus, and the rest of the evening kept to this light tenor, with lots of laughter. At one point I stopped the converation to note: “This is important.  You see? When we’re face to face, we understand each other. E-mail communication is really sinister.” The night concluded with a chaste kiss at the Metro.

Ghosts in the machine

Wanting to diversify my world — I’d be making my famous Palestinian chicken for friends of Vanessa and bringing it to the house they were moving to that day, looking out over (I’m not making this up) the Pere Lachaise cemetery — on Saturday morning I decided to check out the vernissage for a group exhibition in my suburban Paris village of the pre Saint-Gervais. Life is more than women! Life is more than the women in my life over the past few years who seem to be Bizarro Universe interpreting the scripts for Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films!

After sensing that in lieu of the usual joy of discovery I still feel around art I was feeling incredibly wary after entering the art space, in the same room below the covered market where I’d scored my old aborted professor Jerome Charyn’s “The Catfish Man” — I was increasingly regretting that I lacked the coping skills Charyn’s hero (himself) had been inculpated with by being forced to tangle with the urban catfish in the mudflats of the Bronx of his come-uppance — when someone I didn’t recognize at first, a woman in her ’50s with a boyish hair-cut, rose up like one of Charyn’s catfish and announced in wonder, “Paul.” It was another V, the last girlfriend and who, in contrast to the current V., who never stopped blaming herself for being unable to love, had taken the opposite tactic with me when we last tango’d/tangle’d nearly three years ago, blaming it all on me, even though in this case the opposite was true; this was one sick puppy. I know this sounds like the usual break-up sour grapes, but I’m short-handing because she doesn’t merit more time than this. I simply mention the encounter because it may have been an omen….

… And to introduce what I conveyed to “Vanessa” as we marched from the ill-advisedly chosen Pere Lachaise rdv to the dinner at the home overlooking the cemetery. I know it’s not advised to mention an ex to a current, but for me this was a means of delivering a series of compliments:

“Where she doesn’t assume any responsibility, you unfairly blame everything on yourself…. And even though she’s 14 years younger than you, on looks there’s no contest.” Vanessa smiled widely at this. “She’s skinny-ass where you have the body of a woman, uninteresting to look at where you are.”

I was annoyed when …. No, I find I can’t go into what annoyed me, nor any other details of the party related to my interactions with “Vanessa” because it sounds like evidence gathering, and this piece is not intended to be an indictment nor a reckoning, but a first step on the path out — out of heartbreak and out of “Vanessa” — for myself. I also believe that, like an American black-belt I once knew in Antwerp once explained to me in saying why the very fact that his hands are deadly weapons means he has a reponsibility *not* to fight, a writer doesn’t have the right to use his considerable gifts in romantic reckoning.

So suffice to say that the evening seemed to end sublimely, with Vanessa and I getting lost in perpetual circling of a Paris roundabout, this one the Place Gambetta. We held hands from the moment we left the hosue; there was some warm French kissing. When I said I wanted her to come home with me, she responded that she “wasn’t against” this, but reminded me that she had to get up early to go meet her grand-daughter at the train station.

We seemed to part in joy hands taking an extra clutch before separating…

…but..not before, unprompted, she asked out loud again why she was unable to jump into my arms, then answered her own question with “Is it because you couldn’t get it up?,” though not putting it that way, again sorting the demon.

Once home, in a letter I sent on getting home at 1:30 a.m., I felt compelled to repeat my earlier answers, both the defensive and proactive ones: If you want a man to get it up, the worse thing you can do is tell him it bothers you when he can’t; and then detailing, explicitly, all the other ways I’d like to please her, and ending with, “Let’s have fun with it!”

In the last e-mail I sent her Sunday before she let the hatchet fall again (and once again by e-mail), I wrote, rather poetically (she completed the beauty and humor before lowering the ax), regarding our lost midnight turnabout, “I’d rather be lost with you than found with anyone else.”

Oh and I left out one important detail: After one embrace, I finally said the words in person for the first time: “Je t’aime,” with a big smile on my face. “What am I supposed to say?” “You’re not supposed to say anything, just accept it.”

I mention this because since she broke with me after the late Saturday night letters, I’ve been torturing myself with: Did the letters, particularly the lasciciousness, scare her away? What if I’d backed off – after the happy Metro separating – and allowed her the space to come to me. So to counter this self-torturing (I even mentioned this possiblity in my last letter to her – if I’d backed off, I  might not have lost you) I’m trying to tell myself that it was more this first face-to-face declaration of love that did it.

Ultimately I think this is the problem, the reason that Sunday and Monday morning she pulled out, saying she was arresting the histoire d’amour with me because she wasn’t “at the hauteur” of my emotions and compliments to her, to a degree that it was making her sick: I don’t think she has a problem with loving (at one point she told me she’s never been able to love, that she ended her two marriages because of this); I saw this manifest from her towards me in copious ways over the past two plus weeks. I think she has a problem with accepting being loved.

Before starting this piece this overcast Tuesday morning, I’d determined not to read any new mails from V. because I knew if I read them I’d have to respond. (And that I shouldn’t have given her the power to confirm or deny that my letters, sentimental and lascivious, of late Satruday had scared her off.) The one I did receive from her this morning, sent last night, confirmed this urge but so far I’m resisting. Not so much because I’ve convinced myself that it’s unhealthy to continue on her  roller coaster (I’ve left out the numerous things she’s said or acts she’s done which indicate a profound love because this is not intended to be a requisatory, but a first step towards my own healing .. and advancement / continuation in the search for the vrais amour) but because I’ve told the part of myself unable yet to fall out of love with her, unable to let go even though my brain and a large part of my heart realizes that this is unhealthy, to let myself be swallowed up by a heart that is really broken, that this is my last hope, I’ve decided to follow two precious pieces of advice dispensed to me by my New Zealand-bred horse chief on a pony farm along the Texas – Oklahoma border more than six years ago:

 

  1. You can’t blame yourself for the things you can’t predict. All signs — all the signals she sent me — indicated that this woman was crazy about me from the moment she encountered me. I but responded to that with the joy in my heart this provoked.

 

  1. If you want a horse/filly to do what you want, the worse thing you can do is keep barking at him. You need to give him/her time to digest what you just said, so that he ultimately makes the decision him/herself.

 

I don’t know if she’ll write me again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep from opening any mails she might send, or from responding if I do. But this is what I’m going to attempt, at least for a week. What I do know in my heart of hearts is that she’s hurt me so much with the ups and downs that it will take more than an e-mail to convince me of any change of heart that she might have, or rather return to the previous obsession she announced with me.  I need her to do what she’d refer to as a “Woddy Allen,” running to me breathlessly along Fifth Avenue Woody at the end of “Manhattan,” arriving panting and breathless at my door before I move on.

But to get back to the French director towards whose whose grave I found myself staggering up the rue des Martyrs as the sun set over the Sacre Coeur church which slowly emerged above it, gums bleeding from the just-extracted tooth, heart still raw. Once at the grave, after filling my green plastic up from a nearby fountain with water and popping a dissolvable 1000 gram Paracetemol into the water, posing it on Truffaut’s grave (decorated with an unravelling 35 MM film spool and a worn photo of Truffaut, Leaud, and a woman who might have been Claude Jade on the set)and watching it fizz away like this love affair, I lifted the glass and, echoing the Charles Trenet song which provides the theme for the 1968  “Stolen Kisses” – in which Leaud’s Antoine and Jade’s Christine fall in love – toasted Francoise Truffaut with “A nos amours,” to our loves. I might have added “This is all your fault,” for setting a model of Antoines and his women I was continuingly trying to counter-act. I wanted to be the anti-Antoine, proposing a definite “OUI!” to all these French women I was encountering. Why did they keep behaving like Truffaut’s Antoine, falling in love only to deny it and jump off the train, fleeing into the great French wilderness, fleeing love – mine and theirs – on the run?

The Lutèce Diaries, 14: Juliette of the Spirits

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.

Rainforest music.

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.

Lutèce Diaries, 9: Shadow boxing with Zola or Je brave, j’ose — As tear gas falls on the yellow vests at the Place de la Republique, I cry over the girl in the red dress

dusong labrynthe“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

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

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PARIS — While the intrepid reporters of France Culture radio were over at the Place de la Republique Saturday not getting the story of what 200 “Yellow Vests” convened for a Study-In might have done to provoke the riot police into resorting to tear gas, I was down the street at the tony Filles du Calvaire gallery checking out a more studied manifestation of French culture. Notwithstanding a technical glitch — Mercury was definitely in retrograde Saturday, playing havoc with both electronic and personal paths of communication — which prevented the artist from delivering the potentially most pertinent epiphany promised in her debut solo exhibition / installation, involving the possibility that her delicate fingers might get snapped off at the joints by one of the 12 open school desks arrayed like relics from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” on the gallery’s second floor, Emma Dusong provided a schooling on just how vital artistic, contemplated expression can be in our reactive times.

The first indication I had that my day might go haywire came when I arrived at the top of Eastern Paris on the Place des Fetes and immediately realized that what had been advertised as a “vide grenier” (like a community-wide garage sale; ‘vide’ = empty, grenier = attic) was actually an empty-all-the-crap we weren’t able to sell during 2018 junk sale, organized by a motley collection of what used to be called ‘chiffonniers,’ who famously scoured the trash-cans of Paris looking for treasures. (If you’ve seen Elia Kazan’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” you know that in the Lower East Side they used to call them ragmen.)

It was partly by reminding myself of this fact that I was able to beat Zola at his own game when I came upon one of the three things I was theoretically looking for, a record player (for 78s as well as 45s and 33s) in a suitcase.

“How much?” I asked, faithful to Henry James’s imperative that these be the first words out of any self-respectingly acquisitive American’s mouth when dealing with the natives.

“10 Euros,” the burly, balding, and swarthy middle-aged man busily unwrapping something on the curb 20 feet away from me barked out, not looking up.

“Ca marche? Ca function?” (I’d learned a decade ago that, when it comes to electronics of questionable provenance, there’s an important distinction between these two words, one meaning it actually does what it’s supposed to do, the other promising no more than that it will start up.)

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“The cord? You mean the branchement?”

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“Alors ça ne marche pas.”

“Si, ça marche.”

I’d asked him so many times whether it worked that he’d finally surrendered and given me the answer I wanted to hear.

After figuring out how to lift the arm from its holder, I verified that it still had a needle. (One of my rules is not to purchase anything that’s not 100% good-to-go, because I know I’ll never get around to fixing it.) Everything else looked impeccable: The removable top with the speakers, the sleek metal dials, the cords connecting the power source and the speakers. There were just two hitches: The guy wouldn’t look at me. And the open record player was wet, the seller having done nothing to protect the item from the morning’s intermittent drizzle.

For a moment I tried to convince myself that “c’est pas grave,” it’s no big deal; if upon getting home I discovered that the record-player didn’t work, I could just take it to “Mood,” the handy-dandy vinyl and record player repair shop around the corner. (I could even get some records to test the device; the guy at the next stand was selling his collection of “Songs of the Cuban Revolution” for 2 Euros a pop; if I could find a branchement at the demonstration the “Yellow Vests” were throwing later that afternoon at the Place de la Republique, a few blocks from where I was heading, I could even be the DJ. “American journalist arrested for fomenting Red Revolution among the Yellow Vests at the Place de la Republique.” In 2003 the back of my head made the cover of l’Humanité, the Commie rag, now about to go out of business, the head being turned to lead Americans against the War in anti-Bush chants.)

Then I imagined the subsequent conversation with the repairman.

“There’s water all over the parts. Did you leave it out in the rain or something?”

“No, it was already wet when I bought it.”

“You bought an electronic device that was already wet?”

“Well, the guy told me it worked.”

“Which guy?”

“The guy at the vide-grenier that was really a vide-everything-we-haven’t been able to sell in 2018 sale. I only paid 10 Euros.”

“You have 10 Euros to waste?”

In fact I don’t, which is ultimately why I decided not to buy a wing and a prayer with a classy chassis, and why I can say I beat at his own game Zola, one of whose characters in “The Happiness of Ladies” (Le Bonheur des Dames) enters the spanking new mega-department store of the title (basically a mall before its time; Zola always was ahead of his in detecting the built-in time-bombs in progress) promising “It’s just to look, looking is free, isn’t it?” and ends up with five store employees behind her towing the five cart-loads worth of this-and-that’s (“that fringe would go great with my curtains,” etcetera) she’s bought which will prove the ruin of her functionary husband. Less here than in “Germinal” and “L’Assommoir,” my problem with Zola is that his characters don’t seem to have any free will; they exist to serve the arguments of their creator. I had not just beat the master at his own game, but asserted my own free will against the gods of pre-determination and Haman.

My conviction that I’d made the right move was confirmed when, seeing a man toting fake tulips in a stained-glass lantern as I walked away from the Place des Fetes I thought, “Now there’s something that’s absolutely useless, and yet he’s holding onto it like he can’t do without it,” and realized that if I’d bought the record-player and been lugging an old rectangular rusted valise as if it were true gold, he’d probably be thinking the same thing about me. And it was bolstered when, wandering down the rue Doctor Something towards what I hoped was the rue de Belleville, I crossed one of those “Died for France” plaques, this time marking the life and passing of a Resistant who had been arrested and deported to Auschwitz. “He didn’t die for France,” I reflected, “so that 76 years later an American with the delusion that he can buy his way into French culture could procure a decrepit turntable of dubious functionality.”

Speaking of decrepit, I wasn’t sure if I was heading back to Lilas (another frontiere Paris suburb) or Belleville until I saw the inevitable sign pointing me towards a cemetery, this one for the old Belleville bone-orchard, if I can cop a phrase from Tennessee Williams’s “This Property is Condemned.”

A sign posted on a balcony and indicating the opposite state of propriety greeted me at home base — the rue des Cascades high above Paris, which links Belleville and Menilmontant — with an “another apartment sold” announcement from a real estate agency calling itself “App. Art,” the two words separated by a pineapple. As if by putting “art” in their name the speculators helping the BoBos buy up Belleville could mask the fact that, as in San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg before this cosmopolitan neighborhood, the very artists and ethnic communities who have given Belleville its caché will soon be priced out.

Convincing my gammy leg, which wanted to turn on its heels and head back home, that “it’s all downhill from here,” I turned onto Menilmontant, crossed the boulevard of the same name and, after detouring a block to pick up the customary Diplomate bread pudding to fortify me, continued down Oberkampf to the Metro of the same name, a few steps from the rue Filles du Calvaire and its gallery, my Rubicon being the rue de la Folie-Mericourt just above the boulevard and not far from where the gunmen had mowed down dozens of people on the terraces of three cafes on November 13, 2015, on which terraces all the memorials have disappeared. (Depending on your source, the Folie-Mericourt is either named after a Revolutionary heroine who went mad ((Wikipedia)) or the country house of sire whose name started out as Marcaut before it was mutilated by history. ((“Lutèce, à présent nomée Paris, Cité capitalle de France,” Jacques Hillairet, Le Club Français du Livre, 1959.)) En tout cas, I’ve learned to avoid all Paris streets which start with “Folie,” as they usually turn out to be dead ends.)

dusong chairs with her“Classe,” 2012. Motorized sound installation with activated light, words, voice, and composition by Emma Dusong. Co-produced by the City of Paris, Nuit Blanche.  Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

“The exhibition isn’t quite ready yet,” announced one of the at least five chic-ly attired (mostly in black) women and one thin man at the desk, pointing to the stairs at the rear of a first room as a group of us entered the gallery foyer after traversing the courtyard and buzzing open a grill guarded by meticulously trimmed midget trees. “But you’re welcome to look at this one,” she said, inclining her hands towards a floor splattered with shiny ceramic still lives which reminded me of the wreath of porcelain flowers decorating Marie Taglioni’s mother’s grave at the Montmartre Cemetery. (That makes two so far, if you’re counting.)

When we were finally allowed to mount the stairs, 20 minutes after the scheduled opening and following a cameo descent to the lobby by Dusong, who’d replaced the black smock of the press kit photos with a form-fitting red dress and dawned librarian glasses, I was initially under-whelmed. We were met by the 12 connected desks, each open to reveal a light and a metal-spool like object, apparently where the technical problem lay, if one is to believe the press release (which had promised the artist sitting at one of them and inserting her hands la dedans, with no idea if the desk would do a “Little Shop of Horrors” number on her delicate digits) and judging by the technician-like looking man seated at one of them and scratching his head quizzically.

The announced technical glitch might also have concerned a short film projected beyond a curtain under an “Emergency Exit” sign, which up until the screen abruptly went black mid-promenade and mid-song inspired the exhibition’s most moving moments, starring the raven-haired Dusong moving slowly around a serene pond guarded by a sort of combination Yabba the Hut – Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome labyrinth. After repeatedly chanting in her soprano voice a mantra whose only recognizable (but powerful) words to me were “Je brave, J’ose,” I brave, I dare, while slowly walking in bare feet around the periphery of the pond — set against a tropical bay — Dusang, this time wearing a gently swaying gossamer gown, enters the labyrinth, but after a couple of twists and turns and before she can get out, either the film ends where it’s supposed to or the power went out and the tiny space went black. Given that the press kit includes a picture of her exiting the mouth of the object, I tend to vote for the latter.

Moving as Dusong’s words and the child-like yet sad voice in which she delivered them were, the experience was constricted by the fact that only those able to grab one of a handful of headphones were able to hear her mesmerizing voice straddling the delicate tightrope between melancholy and hope. Perhaps the artist didn’t want the voice of her film self to have to compete with the voice of her taped self, running on a loop in the main exhibition room. There she spoke a bit too fast for me to follow, but I’m assuming she was repeating the same tiny text featured in two Lilliputian notebooks encased in glass boxes affixed to the walls. Over the vast hole in the middle of the space a scrim reflected a projected blue sky with white clouds. I’d no sooner groaned at the banality of it than I noticed the shadow of a guy leaning over the rail guard surrounding the hole’s periphery projected on the scrim. I had to try out a couple of spots before my shadow followed suite and instantly thought back to the shadow room at the Exploratorium, a science-is-fun museum in San Francisco where I worked in high-school as an Orange-Jacketed Explainer, and where intermittent flashes made the green wall retain the form you’d pressed against it during the flash. (In case you’re wondering what my specialty was, I was the go-to Explainer for the cow’s eye dissection; 40 years later and I’m still dissecting others’ visions.)

The gist of all three texts — spoken, walled, and abortedly projected — involved a young woman or girl summoning the courage to speak for and up for herself. The exhibition is called “La voix libre,” with the PR claiming the artist is “libertaire,” the polite word in France for “anarchist,” but given as this was the third event in two days that I came across with aspirations to anarchism, it’s a stretch; all were in organized spaces, either bourgeoisie (the ambiance at the Filles du Calvaire seemed particularly chi-chi), municipally, or nationally funded, the last being a two-day event at the Centre National de la Danse somewhat brazenly called “Occupation.” (If the owners invite the occupiers in, it’s not an occupation.)

It’s a sort of rebellion that falls within socially accepted norms, like the so-called “Yellow Vests” so-called “Movement.” I’m not calling for real physical rebellion — if anything, I’m a hardliner who believes the State was right to arrest one of the movement’s self-proclaimed leaders for holding a protest without a permit. But to cite a precept that a lot of pundits and politicians on the Left and Right have been liberally tossing around lately, as Albert Camus — another French philosopher the libertaires have claimed as their own — said, “Mal nommer les choses, c’est ajouter au malheur du monde.” (When you misname things, you only add to the world’s unhappiness.)

How I interpret Camus’s argument in the current context is that when you give people the idea that simply proclaiming “I brave, I dare” makes you a libertaire, you’re not setting the bar particularly high. Far from really acting up, the Frenchman’s pattern is to act out. (Unfortunately, what elevated the “Yellow Vest”s’ campaign from a harmless temper tantrum to senseless violence was when their round point blockades lead to the deaths of at least eight people.)

Hiking up the Canal St.-Martin after the… artistic … manifestation, I saw a group of men take a table in a brasserie and break out laughing. The only thing that made them stand out was their yellow vests, which they were sporting like a five-star general’s medals, only the generals would be more modest. “We’re special, we’re the stars, because we have our vests.” (Later on on the rue la Villette approaching the parc Buttes Chaumont, I resisted the temptation to ask a group of men standing in front of an official-looking building if they were “Yellow Vests” or municipal workers wearing yellow vests.) A few minutes later, I counted seven dark blue Mobile Gendarmes vans speeding up the boulevard Richard-Lenoir — where’s the Commissaire Maigret when you need him? — towards the Bastille, sirens blaring. This Monday morning, when France Culture radio finally got around to telling us what had actually happened Saturday night, it reported that another of the self-proclaimed leaders of the “Yellow Vests” claimed the gendarmes or police had purposely fired in his eye with a flash ball or a circling grenade or something like that; that he’d been targeted because he was HIM.

They all want to be Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows,” playing hooky during the day and praying at Balzac’s shrine at night, but in the end they always wind up walking back across the bridge (over the Montmartre cemetery looking down on Sacha Guitry’s grave) to return the stolen typewriter to dad’s office… and getting busted and sent to the reformatory camp anyway before breaking out and running along the beach in liberated joy, like the hero in Chris Marker’s “La Jeté” fatally repeating the cycle and never finding out who that woman was.

After being mistaken for one of them — an artist I mean, not a “Yellow Vest” — while taking notes in front of a tree-stump with a “real tree coming soon here!” sign from the mayor next to which somewhat had stapled the upper half of a real yellow Formica chair that looked suspiciously like the one I left behind in my flat on the rue de Paradis 11 years ago, and grimacing at a stuffed grizzly bear with a top hat on the inside of a taxidermist’s not too far from the gallery, I finally sat down to rest my tired but not quite dead yet dogs on a thin metal bench (too thin to sleep on; see yesterday’s item) by the Canal St.-Martin to sip my green thermos tea and devour what remained of my Diplomate, causing two drifting mallards and one female duck to change course, paddle towards me, and vociferously accuse me of being a quack until I surrendered and tossed some squishy Diplomate their way. The first dispersement went well, but after I relented and offered a second helping, the sea-gulls and the pigeons descended and started fighting for the remains of the rapidly dissipating diplomat.

dusong pool“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.