Shadows of our Forgotten Chanteuses: One of the hidden retrouvals in the exhibition Foujita: Works of a Lifetime (a paltry selection all the same given the more than 1,000 works created by the Montparno artist) is the 1927 97 x 63 cm oil on canvas portrait of the chanteuse Suzy Solidor, whose throaty alto makes Piaf sound like Chantal Goya by comparison. (In particular check out her renditions of poems by Paul Forte and Jean Cocteau, as well as the port ballad “L’escale.” Laisser la porte ouverte.) Solidor, who fell out of favor after becoming involved with a German officer she met at her Paris cabaret during the Occupation, donated the painting in 1973 to the château-musée Grimaldi in the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer to which she’d retreated. Like the 1929 61 x 50.2 cm oil on canvas “Self-portrait” at right, the Solidor painting is ©Foundation Foujita / Adagp, Paris, 2018. What do these images have to do with the story below? Read on.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
“Time is moving on
You better get with it
Before it’s gone.”
— Donald Byrd & Guru, “Stolen Moments”
“I’ve got to stay awake
to meet the rising Sun.”
— Wailing Souls
“Laisser la porte ouverte.”
— Suzy Solidor
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PARIS — I’ve just lived six of the most extraordinary days in my increasingly youthifying life. (What Hemingway left out — or perhaps never lived, for if he had, he might not have become an old man by the sea at 61 with no way out save shoving a shotgun in his mouth and blowing his brains out — when he said Lucky the man who has lived in Paris as a young man is the revivifying effect Paris can have on the man of the ‘hardened’ age who thinks love’s already passed him by and instead finds adolescent amour resurrected, even if what Boccaccio called the resurrection of the flesh has become problematic. ((This passage from “The Decameron” has stuck in my mind ever since a Princeton European Literature professor, Theodore Ziolkowski, made a point of reading it out loud to a class of 400 randy freshman in late 1979.)))
I can’t tell you any more than that because it’s too private even for me, so let’s shift to the results, particularly the quality-price ratio, of my culinary and literary shopping expeditions last Friday and Saturday (February 1 and 2, this account being written Friday February 8 before being touched up the past two days; I’ve been distracted) — after all, if your heart gets indigestion you can still feed your stomach and brain! — which might just help you unpack your own past and stoke your brain and stomach in a Paris and a France where to many it seems increasingly harder to get anything without paying an arm and a leg. (Earlier this week, I discovered that a four-minute excursion on a swing half the size of the ones we used to ride for free in San Francisco’s Douglas park will cost you 1.50 Euros in the Buttes Chaumont park in what used to be a working class neighborhood of Paris, above where I’m living here in the pre St.-Gervais. And if we’re unfortunately able to share only two of the works of the under-exhibited Montparno artist Foujita from his current expo at the Maison of Japanese Culture, and in miniscule form, it’s because the mullahs of ADAGP, which has cornered the artists’ rights market here, apparently think art magazines still make money.)
Want to get to know this man? Read on: (Française? Tu pouvez traduire cette annonce en poussant le bouton au droit; ou ecrivez moi et je vous faire un traduction perso au measure.) Brilliant, multi-talented, bilingual, cultured man, great cook, great with kids and animals, luminous green eyes undimmed by experience, great jukebox, 57, solid, sensitive, vulnerable and proud of it (is there any greater gift a man can offer a woman?), heart of gold, devoted, sincere, ready to commit, knows what he wants but doesn’t have a checklist, seeks female playmate who at least aspires to the last seven categories, preferably based in the Paris or Dordogne regions of France. (But I’m open to moving for right woman.) PS: Ping-pong player a plus. I’ll bring the paddles, you bring the ball and come ready to play. Looking for my Fatima to join me living in the light. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
My primary mission heading, thus, into last Friday’s (as in 2/1) outdoor market on the Boulevard Belleville was to score the two for 10 Euro rotisserie chickens I’d passed up on the previous Saturday on the street of the Old Temple below Saint Maur because I thought I might be eating that night at a suburban party I’d been invited to earlier that day in BFB (Bum Fuck Bagnolet), only realizing when I reached the top of the Buttes Chaumont and had finished off my third glass of hot Russian Earl Grey thermos tea (it wasn’t actually a glass but this is a Jewish thing; you can’t resist saying “Have a nice glass tea”) that the pigeon huddling from the humid drizzle under the eve of the small brick condemned building with a blue and yellow mosaic ray across it near the park’s entrance had the right idea.
Having then regretted the chickens all week, I was determined to procure them Friday (2/1). I’d even found the butcher who’d provisioned me in November 2015, the last time I’d treated myself to poulet twins whose gooses were cooked. The plan was to circle back to the butcher’s after having run the three city block-long gauntlet of the market and stocked up on .50 cents per pound bananas, yams ibid, unearthed a cauliflower for no more than 1.50, and secured my 2.30 large jar of peanut-butter and 2.30 per pound spicy olives at the Iranian epicerie on the block after the market finishes at the Metro Menilmontant, not forgetting to reward myself with the customary 1 Euro Diplomate bread pudding pastry at the boulangerie down the block from the epicerie. (Served by the woman whose SCARF can’t conceal her most intimate gift, her smile. In caps because I keep meeting people who seem to believe that the foulard, when worn by women of the Muslim faith, is the greatest threat to the Republic since Pierre Laval ripped the one covering his head off to face the firing squad.) I had 31 Euros in my pocket (and no rocket, in case you didn’t get the Boccaccio citation), which meant 20 for the fruits and veggies to leave enough for the chicken littles and the Diplomate. The only thing I was set on was my bananas (this in homage to a great-grandmother from Kiev who, debarking in the Lower East Side for the first time in 19something bit into a banana before she learned you need to peel it first) and the cauliflower.
I can’t recall all the goodies I crammed into my backpack (in putting this to paper a week later), but it was already at 25 pounds when I spotted the purple Romanescu cauliflower on sale for 1 Euro, and thus at 27 pounds when I spotted her white sister going for the same price a few stalls down, the acquisition of which left me with only one hand remaining free for the two grease er sauce-dripping chickens.
But where my day really took a sublime turn was when the slice of Diplomate the friendly babushka with the headscarf handed me was so still warm like pudding that I knew that this time I really had to justify my request that she not cover it (to avoid French pastry-sticky-top syndrome) and eat it right away. Finding an unoccupied bench at the corner of the boulevard and rue Menilmontant and trying to focus on the Old-School scarlet Metro lanterns and blot out the KFC from my peripheries like a Normandy Percheron attempting to ignore that unlike what her human has just told the gendarmes, the barrels she’s been lugging up the coastal road are stocked not with apple juice but Calvados, I practically drank the pudding as it oozed into my mouth.
Next I had a major decision to make. Given that I also theoretically had to leave one hand free for the Maxi-Coquotte (which I kept calling ‘coquette’ in my e-mails to her, as in, “When will you be leaving my coquette at the Print Bar?”) which my landlord had gracefully agreed to lend me after I’d explained that until my new downstairs denture arrives in two months, I’ll be reduced to soups and purees and which I was supposed to retrieve at the Print Bar and then freight it all, 27 pounds of fruits and veggies, two-pound white cauliflower, one pound of peanut better, and coquotte back to my digs in the pre — I’d perhaps have to let my chickens flee the regret coop. In the end it was with not too much regret that I thus turned up the rue Menilmontant, then left onto the rue Cascades after saluting the “Nous, les gars de Menilmontant” modeling figures ever dancing Matisse-like on the wall of a six-story building looking down on the rue, no doubt to Charles Trenet.
When I spotted a notice on the grating of a gray low-income housing building (this is why if you just meandered along the rue Cascades, where most of the buildings are a dirty grey, you wouldn’t get why I love it; it’s the views sur tout Paris et ses toits and the ancient cisterns that give the street its charm) announcing a meeting at the 20th arrondissement city hall to discuss beautifying and quietifying lower Belleville, my reporter’s instincts kicked in and I copied the dates down, observed by a dour man with a cigar holding a blasé basset on a leash. (The basset also seemed to be dragging on a clope, but it may be that by this time my brain had descended to my herniated disc to lend a hand with all the freight.) After I’d done this and was walking past him, the man said, “Why don’t you just tear it off and keep it? There’s another one inside the building and yet another posted on the rear entrance.” I did this and started to walk away, but then the instinct kicked in again and I turned back to ask him, “What do you think of all this?,” indicating the notice, to which the man responded with the universal fingers flicking off the chin gesture for “Que du blah-blah,” followed by the universal palm up gesture for “baksheesh,” finished with a flourish indicating the condo buildings en face, suggesting that it’s all for the rich now in Belleville. (I went back to Ohio but my city was gone. — The Pretenders. I couldn’t bear it if this happened to Belleville.)
My fear that Belleville — my Paris neighborhood of choice, my base to which the homing device planted there by “The Red Balloon” 50 years ago keeps leading me back — is going the way of my previous home bases, the Mission District and Noe Valley of my coming up in San Francisco (which a recent survey reported has the second most affordable rents in the country…. for those who already live there, with their $92,000 median annual incomes) and Greenpoint, my last stop in Brooklyn where the faux hipsters were last seen marching on the Polish bakeries and butchers with their $20 used-record stores (there’s one here in the pre St. Gervais, right around the corner from me, “Mood,” signaling the presence of BoBo advance scouting parties) was confirmed a hundred yards further down the street. I’d wrung the doorbell to the atelier and gallery of my artist friends K & R (she’s Brit-French, he’s Mexican-French) to fix the dinner date with the Palestinian-Jamaican chicken I’d be roasting for them. (My digs came stocked with Palestinian seasoning and Jerk spice by the owner, now teaching in Haiti; I’d decided to follow a friend’s advice to just cook the chickens myself as opposed to buying them already roasted.) After K. had hiked up the stairs from the printshop in the rear of the courtyard dominated by an Old School behemoth of a lithograph press to greet me and brought me into the atelier where the couple was dining with a young friend at a small table squeezed in between the printer and a window counter, R asked,
“Do you want some coffee?” And then, “Have you eaten yet?” (For R. and K. — this was the first time I’d seen him in three years — this question comes before “How have you been?”)
The result was that by sacrificing the rotisserie chickens, which lead me to taking the rue Menilmontant – Cascades route towards home, I’d not only secured K. and R. as dinner guests for the Saturday after (February 9) but a sumptuous meal of rice, zucchini, and red or kidney beans the likes of which I’d not savored since leaving Texas and as R. is the only one in France who can make the beans. (Though I passed on them in deference to the bread pudding comfortably nestled in my stomach where I wanted it to sit a spell, he even had a jar of pickled hot jalapenos — “I get them from a Turkish place” — which reminded me of the open cans of vinagered peppers with which my three itinerant workers from Chihuahua roommates used to stock our Fort Worth frigo.) And in case the mullahs at ADAGP are wondering what their images are doing linked to a story that seems to have more to do with Fajita than Foujita, a) R. is a spitting image of the Montparnasse painter and b) if the Americans and other Anglophones had done to Montparnesse housing prices in the 1920s what they’re now doing to prices all over the East of Paris in 2019 Foujita would not have existed, at least in Paris. This is what critics do; they don’t just write up ‘compte rendus’ for your publicity, they look at CULTURAL CONTEXT. ) (If you want to verify me on the beans, check out K. and R.’s annual Dia de los Muertos fete, for which he cooks up a bathtub full of them, accompanied by the hottest salsa this side of El Paso.)
“You know that rather moche section of the rue de Hermitage?” R. asked once I’d sent the beans down to percolate with the Diplomate. “A friend who’s lived there for 20 years just sold his 60 square meter place for 800,000 Euros.” “That’s insane,” I answered, launching into my lament for Belleville, to general acclaim. “They come here for the art and ethnic character, and they’re pushing the artists and ethnics out,” just like in San Francisco and Brooklyn before Belleville. (Not entirely just, as unlike SF and Greenpoint, Paris’s affordable housing laws which mandate substantial HLM — Moderate Rent Housing — units in most neighborhoods are kicking out everybody but the very poor and the very rich, who, as Hemingway — not Fitzgerald — said are not like you and me. Wait a minute; wasn’t Bill de Blasio supposed to take care of that?) The young art student having lunch with us shared that in looking to buy a place anywhere in Paris or even BFB, the best she’s been able to find is a 25 square meter flat for 200,000 Euros.
Filled up with the equivalent of range beans if not optimism for my Belleville’s future and crossing the rue Belleville to the rue La Villette — which if the Cascade housing prices continue to opposite-cascade will soon supplant that rue as my dream Belleville nesting grounds, with its menusier and box-making ateliers and cello (luthier) and electric guitar repair shops — and feeling Cowboy-y, I decided to pop in at the hole in the wall cordonnier atelier under the archaic “Topy Soles” sign and ask how much it would cost me to put new soles onto my genu-ine Texas working cowboy boots. (A note to all the well-meaning French friends who keep telling me I need to get them polished because they’re too scruffy: This is how you can tell the real cowboys from the dimestore variety; those’re horse-manure stains, pardner!)
“You’re knocking over my boots with your back-pack!” the ornery blue-smocked cuss emerging from the even tinier workshop in the back railed at me as I tried to navigate between the counter and the shelves of cowboy boots, two pairs of which my back-pack had just knocked to the floor. After 10 minutes of pointing at my worn heels and asking “How much?” I finally got a mumbled “20.” (To help you visualize the welcome, the proprietor reminded me of the cantankerous owner of the Z Bar on San Francisco’s Haight Street who’d once evicted Richard Avedon because “We don’t serve long-hairs here.” This in 1990, and which I know only because of the late Herb Caen, whose boots I only try in vain to fill every day; but Herb had the imposed size discipline of his 1/3 page next to the Macy’s ad to protect him — and his readers — from excess verbiage.)
When I returned Monday to drop off my boots while hopefully not knocking over anyone else’s, the cordonnier groused, pointing to the heels, “When I gave you the price I didn’t see that,” noting how eroded the heels beneath the rubber talons had become. “How about 25 Euros? Is that okay?” When I picked them up late in the afternoon of the following day, toting just a cloth shoulder sack — “See, I remembered about the back-pack!” — the cordonnier left me waiting while he finished cobbling another pair, then went to retrieve mine. Pulling each boot out of a plastic bag to show me the heels, he added proudly, “I shined them too,” for free. (I was relieved to note that the horse-shit patina that certifies me as a genu-ine Texas stable-boy was still visible.) Impressed and wanting to convey this, I started to compare this fine work with the shabby job the “jeunot” (young buck) in the provinces had done on them just six months earlier and which didn’t last longer than two weeks (among other short-cuts, he’d used staples instead of nails; they were also too smooth and slip-inducing, while these new ones were rutted), but he cut me off by shaking his head, “Moi, I’m an artisan. I know my work.” When I asked him if he still felt the 25 Euro price was fair, he answered with dignity, “Ca vas,” and even graced me by cracking a smile (yes, professor J.C. Oates, unlike a window a smile can crack), sending me out to take in the sunset as I broke the boots in with a stroll around the cascades and lake at the Buttes Chaumont, where families and children, babushkas, BoBos, and babies were strolling, jogging, chasing rubber balls and making out, enjoying the false Spring February traditionally offers us just at the moment we’re on the verge of forgetting what Paris is all about: Debate, amour, and converting raw Menilmontant meat into Palestinian masterpieces with Jamaican dreadlocks in a Swiss oven for your French-English, Eastern European-Jewish, Mexican-French guests. (“Save some for the Texas kitty,” my white bi-color eyed cat Mimi pipes in. Hiyo, Silver.)
PS: I see I’ve reached what Herb used to call the Bottom of the Page without getting to the brain food part, except for the stimulating conversation around the printing press about the Belleville housing and the Foujita-Fajita wordplay and pictures, and only 60 minutes left to shrink the Foujita images into ADAGP acceptable dimensions and skedaddle to Belleville to round up the chicken for Saturday’s dinner party. (This last line written on Friday, 2/8, a week after most of the period described in this account.) So: After expending 20 Euros on all of the above, here’s what I got for free — the brain-food — in a 60-minute ramble around the pre (St.-Gervais) last Saturday (2/2) morning. (I’ve been distracted lately, so this one took a bit longer to write.)
** At the “Fete le livre” event hosted by the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterrand: The Italian writer Elsa Morante’s saga “La Storia,” and the inviting smile of the librarian as she directed me to follow the tree-lined alley behind the library to get to the covered market.
** At the free book exchange hall under the market: Two books with, like the Joyce Carol Oates crack crack above (Joyce once chided a fellow Creative Writing student, since become a famous writer, for using the phrase “The window opened a crack.” “A back can crack. Not a window.”), connections to my alma mater: “The Ides of March,” another historical novel, this one by Thornton Wilder, Princeton Class of about 1915. And who, unlike our fellow alums F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill — whose comment “Princeton is tradition-bound,” with its double meaning, still holds, as I learned recently — and a certain Herb Caen wannabe, actually graduated. And — here’s where the closure with the troubled academic past comes in — “The Catfish Man,” whose author, Jerome Charyn (at one time a chou-chou of the French literati, which lately can’t stop bemoaning that Joyce hasn’t yet won the Nobel, even if they don’t like the way she compared the Charlie Hebdo Muslim spoofs to Vichy-era Jewish caricatures), is one of the many Princeton professors whose courses I never finished.
… And on the way to the open market at the Pantin Church at which I ultimately bought nothing: A set of four large, four medium, and three soup multi-colored ’50s-era hard plastic plates plus a dozen packets of expired Nescafe espresso, which someone had neatly posed in a plastic sack above the municipal poubelles, perfectly timed for serving my multi-cultural bounty to my multi-cultural visitors from Belleville tonight (Saturday, 2/9).
… And now before the Belleville market closes (this written Friday 2/8) and launches me into another week of fowl-regretting, I’m off for Menilmontant to search for my poulets, trying to ignore that they’re the land version of the catfish (whose Bronx versions, Charyn reminds us, eat everything from tires to errant babies).
Have a great week-end, Parisian — whatever you reel in and whatever you’re reeling from.