“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow
Because Paris is a place of dreams
tous les garçons et les filles
and Catherine Deneuve
and I’m walking with Eric Satie
along the boulevards of Paris….”
–Malcolm McLaren, “Paris”
Le vent qui frappe a ma porte
Me parle des amours morte.”
–Charles Trenet, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
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I was sipping a Pelforth Brune on the terrace of “Le Refuge,” atop the stairs facing the Art Nouveau entry to the Lamarck-Caulaincourt Metro up the hill from Toulouse-Lautrec’s old studio, ogling a full-page photo of the 20-year-old Juliette Greco, seductively svelte in an ankle-length skin-tight black velour dress and leaning on the wall outside the Club Taboo, her oval eyes looking up at Roger Vadim as he lit her cigarette, in the black booklet that came with the boxed Philips set “Saint-Germain-des-Prés, l’age d’Or” that I’d just scored for 250 francs at the comics store across the street, where it shared the window with books recounting the legends of the scoundrels and saloon singers of the Montmartre d’autrefois. (I always recognized the shop by the obsolete blue “Philips” shingle which cast its shadow on the window; the electronics boutique it advertised — like Jean-Pierre Leaud spinning hot wax into vinyl in the Philips factory while dreaming of Marie-France Pisier in “Antoine & Colette,” François Truffaut’s contribution to the omnibus production “Love at 20,” the second of the five films in which Leaud portrayed Truffaut’s child of Montmartre Antoine Doinel – had long moved on.) Four records jammed with songs and interviews of and with Boris Vian, his Montmartre neighbor and fellow Pataphysician Jacques Prevert, Greco (and her lover Miles Davis – “I didn’t know he was Black…. And when I found out he was Black, I cried.”), and other lost children of the Occupation. (Greco fled to Paris as a 16-year-old Montpellier girl living in Bergerac, where her mother had been arrested for hiding British officers, and was quickly picked up by the Gestapo with her older sister, a member of the Resistance, before being released and adopted by Sartre and his set; he even wrote a song for her, “The Street of White Coats.”) I’d just come from Studio 28 – the cinema where “Amelie” goes to the movies, with the triangular multi-color aluminum chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau – and seeing a lanky Yves Montand get lost in a fairy-tale Montmartre bestiary after missing the last Metro at Barbes in Marcel Carné’s 1947 “Les portes de la nuit,” in which the Italian-born crooner introduced Prévert’s “Les feuilles mortes.” (You know it as “Autumn Leaves.”) The olive-skinned gamine with the oval face dominated by large Greco-like cat eyes and bronzed curved calves under a cobalt dress with pink roses at the table next to me slammed her cell phone down in a huff and declared, in English, “Some people, their psychology is so complicated!”
Parisians and particularly Parisiennes can seem notoriously cold, but there is sometimes a grace period on the part of those freshly arrived from ‘the provinces,’ their cheeks still flush with country air, their hearts with meridional temperament. Maureen, the gamine of 22 who’d instantly made of me a confident, had just installed herself in Paris to make her life as an actress; at the moment she was interpreting telemarketing scripts at night to pay her rent in a seventh-floor sardine-can-sized walk-up maid’s chamber on the rue Ramey below the rue Chevalier de la Barre that encircled the backside of Sacre Coeur, named after the pre-Revolutionary teenager who’d had his tongue cut out and his hands cut off before he was burned at the stake for refusing to doff his cap and chanting impudent ditties at a procession of religious notables. (I knew this because *after* the Revolution, the French — for whom sanctification often follows vilification — had put up a statue of the Chevalier in a square under the shadow of Sacre Coeur, itself built as penance by the Communards of 1871, and where a Monuments of Paris citation from Voltaire explained his history. Later, I’d go there to watch the July 13 fireworks rain over the Eiffel Tower.) On this late August afternoon under a mellow Sun that turned her Midi tan (like Greco before her, Maureen came from Montpellier) to gold and melted my heart, she was complaining, “He thinks because I slept at his house, suddenly I am his girlfriend. And then there is the other one, who even though I shared his bed doesn’t notice me and cries to me about his problems with other girls,” pronouncing this last word in a way that revealed her own frailty.
Already, that Maureen was from Montpellier made me nostalgic. Earlier that summer, I’d found myself strolling down what (white) locals had warned me was the most dangerous street in town behind Marta y Marta, two young and dazzling, respectively brunette and blonde, string-bean skinny and curvy Spanish businesswomen in town to bone up on their French, one in a form-fitting short creamy white dress, the other in hip-hugging black slacks. Suntanned and cast by Almodovar, as they carried my DJ valise between them – we were headed towards La Chapelle, a church in the gypsy section of town which had been converted into an underground artists’ scene — they drew the gazes of all the swarthy men lining both sides of the street. (“The eyes have it” I’d thought, flashing back to the coded signal my African-American friend Sheila and I had agreed upon during a high-school exchange trip to Israel whenever the Israelis on a bus started staring at us. “Roots” had just been broadcast in the country, and it was common for the Black members of our delegation to be taunted with “Kunte-Kinte” and “Kizzie.”) In my hippy-chic Carhardt overalls, I wasn’t sure who was protecting who. (If I believed that protection was necessary, it was only because as a newbie in France, I wasn’t yet aware that when some French white people told you an area was dangerous, they meant it was French Arab.)
I listened to Maureen, enraptured, as if she’d materialized on cue to help me create my own made-to-order Montmartre fairy tale, and secured a dinner date for sushi on the rue des Abbesses, the main drag in lower Montmartre, for later in the week. She was 22, I was 40, and from her continuing to unburden herself about her two boyfriends, particularly the one who didn’t seem to notice her even when she lay in bed beside him, I assumed I was hors de combat as romantic material and had been consigned to ‘friend,’ and thus didn’t offer to pay for her. This self-interestedness blinded me to the fact that Maureen obviously was poor, later confirmed when she jumped the subway turnstile — her over-sized army surplus jacket accentuating her smallness as she furtively glanced around to make sure the coast was clear — on her way home after we’d scaled the steep stairways of Montmartre to the Butte, stopping before the window of the Bateau Lavoir, where Cubism had been created, so I could pay my respects to Max Jacob and Picasso, who like Cocteau and Jacob’s other pals would fail to save the Surrealist poet from being picked up by the Gestapo and slated for deportation after he was ratted out by neighbors. Jacob, who’d converted to Christianity three decades earlier and had been writing proselytory poems for his comrades ever since, succumbed to pneumonia at Drancy after asking for a priest. (On the Butte itself, where faux artists sat before half-finished pre-fabricated canvasses – not far from where Gene Kelly had hawked his on a side-street in “American in Paris” — and aggressive caricaturists paraded with their sketchpads competing for gullible tourists, the few remaining ancients swore that on a foggy night, after the tourists cleared out, you could still hear Utrillo, soused on cheap jug red, arguing with his mom Suzanne Valadon and her lover Felix Utter behind the shutters of their house on the narrow rue Rustique.)
We made a date to see Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers” on the rue Christine, at an art house cinema across the street from the former site of the Taboo, after I’d answered Maureen’s “Will it afraid me? Because I don’t like scary movies!” with assurances that the film would not. (As bad date idea films go, this was not my worse. Later I’d take an American girl to the Studio 28 to see Cocteau’s “Orpheus,” in which Greco plays a member of a motorcycle gang, after asking her to meet me in front of Truffaut’s tomb at the Montmartre cemetery, which is covered with notes seeking the dead director’s advice; “Did you know the cemetery features in four of the five Antoine Doinel films?” Don’t look back.) Maureen stood me up. When I called her she said she’d fallen asleep. Remaining obdurate — it didn’t even occur to me that she might be exhausted from working the telephone every night from four to midnight, no doubt on commission — I wouldn’t let it go. “I told you, I fell asleep!! What more do you want me to say??!! Oh, que tu peut être bête!” I was in effect seeing Maureen through past burns. Our dynamic – my courting someone who wasn’t romantically available — reminded me of my relationship with Piper, a recovering NYU film student, generation Spike Lee and Basquiat (she resembled Annabelle Scioria, who played the prodigy painter’s girlfriend in the Julian Schnabel film), whom I’d met at a San Francisco psychology clinic where we both worked as editors, and who was ultimately too damaged to enter into a relationship, particularly with someone as smitten and eager to please as I was. They had the same pout, the same small but smoldering stature, the same brooding upper lip, and what I mistook for the same moldering wound. (Piper’s affliction had something to do with a regretted immersion in the seamy NY club netherworld of the late 1980s. I’d been so intimidated by her beauty that at one date, as I masticated my steamed monk-fish, tongue-tied, she’d stopped eating, looked at me and declared, “You know, my shit stinks too.”)
On our last date, I couldn’t make up my mind where I wanted to dine while Maureen refused to eat. (Later, I realized that this was because she didn’t have any money and knew she couldn’t rely on me to pay for her.) We’d started out at “The Stolen Glass,” an organic wine resto (making it one of the quarter’s first Bobo outposts) on the rue des Vinaigres off the Canal Saint-Martin that a couple of vivacious blonde Algerian sisters had turned me on to during my first Paris visit, and that I’d promised had chic music. (I may have been confounding the resto’s ambiance with that of Favela Chic, the club off the Place de la Republique where the sisters and I had later danced that Halloween 2000 night away to the strains of Alpha Blondy, the most famous reggae singer in France, their blonde curls twirling as wildly as the smock of my black and white dashiki, scored eight years earlier as a non-comformist way to comply with the dress code for San Francisco’s Black and White Ball, to which I’d taken an ex-girlfriend with whom I finished the night mambo-ing to a live and sweating Tito Puente, wiping his septuagenarian brow with one hand and pummeling his timbale with the other. It was also Anne who would initiate me to Charles Trenet, long before the original French crooner sent me shivering into tears by asking “What remains of our old loves?” to accompany the “Stolen Kisses” of Leaud and Claude Jade in the eponymous fourth Doinel film. Sometimes I think I should convene all my exes – particularly the dead one, as ghosts seem to have more power over me — to deliver me to the real ame-soeur who’s waiting for me, like Jade and Pisier patching things up between Leaud’s Antoine and Dorothée’s Sabine in “Love on the Run,” the climax of the Doinel cycle.) “It’s just a radio,” Maureen objected after we’d peeked in. So we crankily meandered around the entire Right Bank of Paris, following the canal down to Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre (in New York, I could spend half an hour at the Met contemplating this painting, which had nurtured my Paris fantasies), then walking down the rue Saint-Denis past the over-aged, over-fed whores selling wares which even Henry Miller would have rejected as too decrepit had he strayed from Clichy, then back over to the plaza of the Pompidou museum, only stopping to take a rest at the Stravinsky Fountain, interrupted when Nikki de Saint-Phalle’s buxom mermaid spurted water at us from a generous nipple. After wiping off her cheeks with her sleeve, Maureen looked up at the mermaid and taught me a new phrase, “Je hallucine,” literally, “I’m hallucinating.” After she explained that this could express both shock (at an exorbitant check) or awe (at drop-dead beauty), I put the term to immediate use to signify how pretty I thought she was, “Je hallucine’ing” her all the way to Nicholas de Floch’s 14th-century boarding house in the Marais, whose foyer had been converted into an upscale restaurant. “It’s the oldest house in Paris,” Maureen explained, pointing up at three wobbly stone stories which threatened to precipitate themselves on us at any moment and bury us in the past for good. “Je hallucine!” She crossed her arms, thrust her head at me, opened those big eyes rageously and exclaimed, “It’s not fair, we speak French all the time, and I need to learn English for my acting! You must teach me.”
On the rue des Rosiers, when I asked, “Isn’t this the Jewish neighborhood?” (this was before Goldberg’s delicatessen, the Kosher bakeries, and the Hebrew bookstores were supplanted by generic clothing chains, global commerce finishing off what the Nazis had started), she corrected me, “Now it’s been taken over by the gays,” going on to tease me with, “Maybe that’s why you like it.” I sulked — we were both getting ornery for want of eating. We finally settled on a tourist trap near Les Halles, where I downed a gummy steak au soupy roquefort with a Leffe which taught me that not all Belgium beers are created equal, and Maureen answered my mouthfully pronounced interrogation “You sure you don’t want anything?” by shaking her head and looking towards the Seine, a silent Nadja. Then I made like Breton as we hoofed it towards the Pont Royal, except that instead of hanging on my every word like Breton’s heroine in the eponymous book, Maureen seemed more interested in the ripples of the Seine reflecting the lights of the Bateaux Mouches. I tried to switch from channeling Breton to shadowing Camus when we got to the pont, but it still didn’t work. Rather than the moral question that had obsessed the narrator of “The Fall” after he failed to dive in to save a girl who’d leaped from the bridge, I found myself wondering if Maureen would jump into my arms if I saved her from jumping into the river.
The next time I heard from Maureen was on September 11, 2001. (Finally deciding that she was another Piper, I’d not called her.) From my digs below Montmartre at 33 rue Lamartine (where Baudelaire once conjured hashish-induced phantoms while Gauthier took notes and around the corner from where Theo once pointed out the Notre Dame de Lorette church to Vincent Van Gogh as the brothers headed to the Boulevard Montmartre to try to sell his paintings to Goupil) I’d moved to another sublet in the Cité Falguiere (where a naked Kiki de Montparnasse had modeled for Soutine as she dodged fleas falling from the ceiling) next to the Pasteur Institute, where AIDS had been identified, and up the hill from the Montparnasse brasserie on the rue Delambre where Fitzgerald had encountered Hemingway for the first time. (I found a place that seemed to correspond with the address, but it had likely changed hands so many times I instead settled for the – for me – more recent epoch evoked by a bar across the street, “Smoke,” after the Wayne Wang ode to Brooklyn, in the sequel to which, “Blue in the Face,” Lou Reed declares: “Everyone says they’re leaving New York. I’ve been leaving New York for 35 years,” and proceeded to do something that even Lou Reed could not legally do in Brooklyn, lighting up my first Cuban, scored from a tobacconist’s next to Le Dome, and telling the Wayne Wang-lookalike bartender, “I can’t do this in the United States.”) One afternoon, after looking out the window of my seventh-floor apartment at an Eiffel Tower that seemed so close I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen airplanes circling around it like the ones besieging King Kong atop the Empire State (such transpositions of time, place, and dimension are chronic to the bourlingueur), I opened up my e-mail box to find a message from one of my magazine’s New York critics announcing, “We are under attack.” So I was distracted when Maureen called. “I just heard what happened and I wanted to call to say that I hope your friends and family are all right.” Forever obtuse, I didn’t realize that Maureen was reaching out to re-connect — not so easy for a French person — so when she said, “Well, I don’t want to keep you, I’m sure you have things to do to see that everyone is all right, I just wanted to tell you that I am thinking good thoughts for you,” I let her vanish and join the other phantoms of my life, preferring to deal with concrete yet remote terrorism rather than ford the unfathomable fears of my own heart, slowly being subsumed by ghosts. I called her once a few months later but did not hear back. For years afterwards, I would think of Maureen as I walked past Le Refuge on solitary midnight Christmas Eve Montmartre rambles, heading up to Erik Satie’s old flat on the rue Cortot so I could revel in the melancholy with my ghosts to the imagined accompaniment of “Les Gymnopedes,” a would-be acrobat of love — hadn’t I come to Paris to find la femme de ma vie? — grounded by a fear of flying