by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — Having decided that what I’m living and seeing and sensing and experiencing around me in Paris in 2019 (from my particular perspective, that of a California-born, San Francisco-bred, Princeton-educated, Alaska-humbled, New York-baptized, Texas-burned, Paris-tested, Dordogne-mellowed Eastern European – American – Western European migrant) has more resonance as a post-modern remake of Vincente Minelli’s 1951 film — albeit with my efforts to trace the footsteps of a 39-year-old Gene Kelly hobbled by the chronic sciatic of a 57-year-old I’m not a dancer, I just play one on the dance floor DJ-translator-actor — than a resurrection of Gallo-Roman Paris, and also in the hopes I’ll stop feeling (romance-wise) like a gladiator who keeps getting thrown to the lionesses and instead find my own Leslie Caron, still nursing her wounds as only a Frenchwoman can but ultimately ready to be healed and coaxed into taking my hand and dancing besides me along the Seine (think you might be her? Or just want to play ping-pong? Click here to find out more about me), I’ve decided to change the name of this column from “Lutèce Diaries” to “A post-modern American in Paris,” with a nod towards the mentor who first suggested this deconstruction.
On Wednesday night, then, I found myself comfortably ensconced in an Art Nouveau-style iron chaise attached to a concrete pillar of the belvedere perched atop the park Belleville looking out over the rooftops of Eastern Paris — if the Beaux Arts ball at which Kelly finally heals Caron’s war wounds and convinces her to click heels with him for a lifetime were held today, it would be displaced from Montmartre to Belleville, which has supplanted its Northern neighbor as the city’s artistic nucleus, notwithstanding what appears to be a losing battle to the encroaching forces of BoBo-dom — at just after twilight, waiting for the Eiffel to start scintillating as I gingerly gummed a morsel of Balkan Ajvar (eggplant and red peppers), spread on Lebanese flat bread, with the recalcitrant aid of the sole tooth remaining on the lower right side of the mouth, the lower left just coming out of the effects of the Novocain after my dentist had lopped off the morsel of sharp projecting bone which had been delaying the modeling of a downstairs denture to join the upstairs one.
Between beginning my day by telling the lioness who had chewed up too much of my precious time over the past month “Ca suffit” and terminating it with the dentist removing the bone spike which was impeding my efforts to pique Caron, I felt as though my day had been bookended by the removal of two bone spurs, one from the heart and one from the mouth, leaving my two most sensitive/sensuous organs now liberated to fully profit from Paris, my city. Whence the ethereal sensation that had subsumed me as I’d mounted the rue Menilmontant 30 minutes earlier (after crossing the Place de la Republique, my dentist being located on Pissarro’s Grand Boulevards near the Metro Good News), a soul sensation completed by a brain epiphany furnished by the black tee-shirt of a pony-tailed, Mediterranean-complexioned lady about my age going the other direction, whose white writing read (in English):
I’m not perfect
I’m an original.
Despite a festering blister (on the heel of the foot already occasionally numbed by the sciatic), I’d decided to start my search at a new cafe-associative opened by a couple of transplants from Lyon, “Dorothy’s,” named after the American Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, but whose website had promised “We may be run by Christians, but we’re open to everybody.” I wasn’t looking for Christ, but for a dancing partner, this being “Folk Ball Night.” As there was no mention of a price on either the website or the door poster, I’d assumed that apart from the bar the evening was free, and was ready to accept attempted proselytization as the price of admission. (This seems like a fair trade. In eastern Fort Worth, where I’d spent a spell before returning to France, I sometimes scored free hot bar-b-que, butterscotch icinged-cake, sandwiches, donuts, and even tee-shirts from a Christian help organization which set up in the parking lot of the Fiesta super-market across from the library on Saturday evenings. You didn’t even have to eat sur place but could take the fixin’s with you. Except for one holy roller, the closest they got to proselytizing me was the warm, genuine “God Bless you!” with which the pretty zaftig Latino woman who seemed to be in charge would send me off with my goodies; that she was on crutches the last time I’d seen her had not diminished her exuberance. The time after that — my last Saturday in Texas — she didn’t show up, so I’d left the Tennessee Ernie Ford religious songs record I’d brought for her with another volunteer.) Perhaps my being ready to dance with the Lyonnais Christians on the rue Menilmontant was also a reaction to the atheist lioness who’d just chewed me up and spit me out.
Unfortunately, I’d no sooner entered the long hall leading to Dorothy’s dance hall (after stuffing a fourth bandage into my bleeding jaw), half-way up Menilmontant than I saw the cash box at the entry. Apparently the chance to harvest my soul was not enough for the Christians; I’d also have to show my filthy lucre. Despite that this meant abandoning my entry line — “Hello, I’m Dracula, and I’ve come to dance” — I turned away, down the hill, and right onto Cascades to head towards the parc Belleville.
With my fellow Bellevilloises already gathered there, many of them chugging beer, swigging wine, or pique-niquing on the concrete, planted parapets separating the belvedere from the closed park below, the ambiance made me think back to another gathering in the same place — several days after the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks that took the lives of 130 fellow Parisians — spontaneously convened for the silent bonhomie and to regard the park, the rooftops, and most of all the sparkling Eiffel, as if to reassure ourselves that beauty still existed. So I suppose I should have been content that when the Eiffel began sparkling on this early Spring Wednesday evening, sharply at 8 p.m., I seemed to be the only one who noticed, my companions being too busy talking and laughing and drinking and looking at each other (and shouting at their ‘putain des I-phones’) to notice. It’s the kind of comfort in crowds that only big cities can offer. I’ve had a similar feeling on subways since the attacks, not unlike the sensation I felt riding the 22-Filmore bus in San Francisco right after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. You don’t really feel alone, but joined with others who want to be here, in this place, in this moment.
As for Leslie, heading home down the rue des Pyrenees, at the book exchange box near the place I scored a copy of Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love,” which I thought was a good omen. She doesn’t have to be perfect — just in the market for an original.