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.

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.