By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — The dirt-encrusted brown calves and bare feet slowly wriggling up out of the mound of aromatic detritus behind the green fences overlooking the debut of the Canal St.-Martin and the irritation in my throat suggested that if mayor Anne Hidalgo has good intentions, pollution and living conditions — at least for the poor and wretched in the latter case — may have deteriorated since my last sojourn here in 2016. N’empeche que there was still Sarah Bernhardt to welcome me at Austerlitz.
I first ‘met’ the Divine Sarah during the Met’s Belle Epoch exhibition in 1982, even if I didn’t know that the thin woman with the piercing eyes — enveloped in a fur scarf and a skin-tight velour dress, luxuriating on a velvet divan with a submissive but wary panther at her feet — who peered out with a come-hither look from the poster I’d procured was the greatest actress ever. Even if the image subsequently starred on all my walls, it wasn’t until I moved into a third-story walk-up on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village (next to Electric Lady, where Jimi Hendrix had reigned before Carly Simon recorded Anticipation and became my first crush with “You’re so Vain,” and around the corner from where Robert Joffrey bunked up with Gerard Arpino; Joffrey’s portrait was still visible in the window, and Arpino, already relocated with the ballet company to Chicago, had told me he would be “delighted, Darling” to discuss the possibility of my renting the pad) that I discovered the identify of my companion when I saw the same poster — from a painting by Bernhardt’s pal George Clarion — peering out from the cover of a paperback left in the tenants’ communal garbage area: A biography of Sarah Bernhardt by one of her theatrical descendants, the Broadway stalwart Cornelia Otis Skinner. Later I’d score a recording of Sarah from the soundtrack of a WW I propaganda film in which, after allowing, “Forgive them G-d, they know not what they do,” she viciously lashes out at the Germans, and still later happen upon an exhibition devoted to her relics at the Bibliotheque National’s musty quarters on the rue Richelieu, up the street from the Moliere fountain where a lion vainly spouts out undrinkable water. Finally, hurrying up the Boulevards La Chapelle, Rouchechouart, and Clichy towards the Montmartre Cemetery with an urgent need one Saturday morning in 2004, I’d spot a sign for a garage sale where I ultimately scored Bernhardt’s personal mirror, encadred by cherry wood with encrusted abalone shells no doubt fabricated in one of the ateliers along the rue St.-Honoré.
And there she was again Sunday night– the same exact image from the Clarion painting whose poster has accompanied me for 37 years (now so torn up I had to leave it at home for this last trip) — on a rotating pillar ad for the Paris Museums at the bottom of the ramp connecting the Austerlitz train station with the Metro. (The original is now at the Musée Petite Palais along the Seine.) As I was expecting a somewhat different reception (“I’m a New Yorker; fear’s my life” — Jonathan Larsen, “RENT”), it was a good omen.
But Paris is not only the heritage of Bernhardt and the redemptive elegance of a courtesan become deity, a life journey crowned by a funeral in which tens of thousands crushed together along the Grands Boulevards (streets memorialized by another French Jew, Camille Pissarro) to follow the 1923 procession from her theater on the Seine to an oblong tomb at Pere Lachaise (where a certain Ex-pat journalist would later be chastised by an ersatz tourist guide for nibbling his croissant on the rim while in deep conference with his most famous guardian angel — “In France, we don’t dine on graves”; never mind that the doyenne in question didn’t know Bernhardt from Bara, having just explained to her clients that the former had been a star of the silent screen). It is also the heritage of Zola, only instead of Gervaise — the tragic heroine of “L’Assommoir,” named after the homemade gin joint on the Boulevard La Chapelle that proves her downfall — curling up in the niche under a stairwell which is the only home she can still afford, making my walkabout du retour yesterday, from digs in le prè St.-Gervais to the Grands Boulevards, after turning onto the Canal St.-Martin off La Chapelle and turning my head towards a heap of reeking garbage sequestered behind a cluster of the still-omnipresent green construction fences I saw the garbage suddenly begin to move and wretch up the pair of squirming legs. A cursory examination indicated more living African bodies coming to life among the festering refuse. Sickened, I turned down the canal towards Le Valmy, the bar-resto that for years was my other shrine (this one of the living), where I was heartened to find Momo, my original bartender from 2001, still holding forth at the wine bistro next door. The last time I’d seen Momo was shortly after the November 13, 2015 terrorist massacre that took the lives of 130 people, many of them mowed down on the brasserie terraces where Momo reigned, a contemporary deity of Parisian life. Smoking a clope while looking out over the canal, he had been clearly distraught. “Des cons,” he pronounced, shaking his head before tossing the butt and returning to the bar. Missing him during my 2016 visit, I’d assumed he hadn’t had the courage to continue in the milieu, now wounded. So even if he has less hair and I have less teeth, I was delighted to find Momo back at his perch. When I asked him yesterday if things had calmed down since the attacks, he answered, finishing his spaghetti, “A bit,” only now there’s the troubles around the so-called yellow-vests and their clashes with already over-taxed police. (“Macron will never resign,” Momo told the barista he was dining with. “A president never resigns.”) If some of their claims are just, particularly those of the retired people like my neighbors in the Southwest of France who find it difficult to make ends meet on fixed incomes *not* indexed to inflation, I was reminded this morning, when the radio news reported that one of the movement’s more law-breaking inclined leaders is also the president of a car club vaunting ’80s models (French DJs are also inexorably hooked on the epoch’s top-10 music), that in the end for these self-proclaimed rebels whose cause has been fueled more by media hype than real popular numbers — their revolt has nothing to do with that espoused by Camus, even if the father of pro-active Existentialism did give personal names like “Desdemona” to his cars, as his recently-released letters to his lover the actress Maria Casarés reveal, and died in one — it’s all about retrograde resistance by worshippers at the shrine of the automobile to cleaning up the air before it’s too late. (The yellow vest in question is required wear for automobilists because it glows in the dark.) This is Anne Hidalgo’s fight and Emmanuel Macron’s fight — these are the luddites they’re up against — which is why I’m on their side. I just pray that the former succeeds in cleaning up the air of all of Paris — she’s noted that 45,000 die of pollution every year in France — and that Macron succeeds in fulfilling his promise that in France, no one, of any color, should be living on the streets. Or sleeping in garbage piles. Shortly after crossing the Peripherique from Pantin to Paris — my neck bundled up in three home-made scarves, my Paris hair-cut head covered in beret and sailor’s cap, and my gams retrieving their Saturday Night Fever stride (“You can tell by the way I move”), as I headed towards the cabinet of my dentist pledged to restore my teeth and smile before he heads off into the sunset (taking with him the poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs, a sign of the doctor’s Franco-American heritage), sequestered behind more green fences I came across a municipal employee sawing up Christmas trees so that they could be made into fertilizer, instead of just being discarded. Here’s hoping that the lost lives can be recycled too.