The Lutèce Diaries, 2: Ils sont tous les enfants de la Republique; The Jewish Book of the Dead; Paris Survival Secrets

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)

PARIS — A DJ I used to know, commenting on one of my elliptical returns to San Francisco from inside the booth of the busy Kennel Club on Divisadero on World Beat night, once explained, “It’s the spirit of the Indian god of Tamalpais. It makes sure you always return to the source.” Tamalpais has nothing on Sigmund Freud, the street named after whom serves as a kind of Rubicon between the prè St.-Gervais ‘burb where I’ve found impeccable digs (thank you, CD and EA) and the Eastern quartiers of Paris, and which somehow found a way Tuesday to steer me away from the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood I was aiming for — it reminds me of SF’s Mission District, with Muslims and Jews, Africans and Asians, BoBos and genuine Bohemians, and succulent pork brioches from Wei Zu province and black dates from the Algerian Bled harmoniously (and deliciously) existing side by side — to Lubavitcher central. I was relieved once I’d crossed the street from a block lined with Kosher grocery stores offering sacks of dubious-looking alleged “bagels” (if they’re not made with New York water, forgetaboutit, and if they’re large, watch out; I subsequently had nightmares about being trampled by wagon-wheels construed of these round baguettes with holes) to a corner presided over by the Haman Medical Center. (Not to say that I wasn’t tempted to enter the Jewish grocery store and ask if they had “Shiksa,” fortunately remembering in time that what I meant was “Kishka,” the most scrumptious and least healthy delicacy Jewish cuisine has to offer, and rien a voir with “Shiksa,” which will sterilize you, Jewish progenitor-wise ((after my annual New Year’s Eve re-viewing of “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Française as part of its Billy Wilder retrospective, everything is now -wise with me, and not just because it’s my Kiev-born grandmother’s Ellis Island-truncated maiden name. And if you’re thinking about calling me a Wisenheimer, forgetaboutit it.))) (And if you’re wondering why I’m determined to avoid Jewish neighborhoods like Albert Camus‘s Plague, let’s just say that in France the Jewish question is too loaded and in the Wild West ambiance of the Internet it’s too loaded for me to tell you why. Yes, I don’t just adulate the fat of chickens — see above under “Kischka” — I am one.)

When the rue Petite finally spat me out at the Laumiere Metro station a couple blocks from the La Villette Basin (to borrow a phrase from Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma, who provided the blue-print for private dicks in French literature), I realized that I was heading away from Belleville. Discovering grace of a handy-dandy Metro station You are Here map that walking in the other direction would take me to the man-made Buttes Chaumont park and waterfalls, from which I knew the way to Belleville if not San Jose, I headed up-hill. Realizing that the trajectory would enable me to discover if the other, second-floor lodging I’d been considering, facing the park on the rue de Crimee (Kiev again), was really as “calm at the exterior” as its proprietor had claimed, I was comforted in my choice of the pré St. Gervais. While the absentee owner can’t have been expected to have known this, two houses down from the building municipal workers were drilling up the carrefour (corner crossing), as part of a city-wide initiative to renovate the gas network. Again. Secret to Surviving Living in Paris No. 1: Don’t. (Live in Paris.) Pick a ‘burb on a Metro line, which foyer you’ll bless every friggin’ time you come home to your refuge from the noise, pollution, and speed of Paris. (Taking my life into my own hands at several street crossings, I was reminded of what a denizen of car-crazy Fort Worth, Texas had once told me as we waited for the green light at a vast intersection to give us 10 seconds to get to the other side. Pointing at the cross-walk, he declared, “Death.”)

What I love about my choice, the prè St.-Gervais, is its charming desuetitude, or obsolescence. Even the recoop chair I’m writing you from, with its Jetson-style curved back and early ’60s olive-green carpeted hide, qualifies as endearingly obsolete, the perfect bons mots launching pad for a throwback like me, who persists in perpetrating an obsolete trade.

Speaking of time capsules, heading down the rue la Villette from the Buttes Chaumont towards the rue Belleville and running into the rue Fessart, I decided to look for No. 22, the former hide-out of the notorious Bonnot Band of anarchists where the adventure of the young heroes of Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), the novel for which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher, begins, so that I could say a little prayer to whatever Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Anarchist, and most of all New York publishing world gods would listen. Fortifying myself with the famous pork brioche at a dim sum place just above the Boulevard Belleville (after a detour down the rue Cascades, accessed via the rue Levert stairway where Pascal met his “Red Balloon” in the Albert Lamorisse film I must have seen 100 times as a kid, to salute to the ancient water cisterns that used to hold the water flowing down to Paris from the abbeys and then back towards the parvis of the parc Belleville for the best view of the Eiffel tower in town, trying to ignore the restaurant marquee on the rue Piat which exclaimed, in English, “Thank God for Broccoli,” yet another sign that Belleville isn’t just being BoBoized, it’s being Anglo-Bobo-ized) — the decor and the prices of the bakery where I used to get my customary pork bun had unfortunately been BoBo-ized — I entered the gauntlet of my favorite marché in France, the place where the multi-cultural Babel of voices makes me feel the most ‘chez moi.’ (Actually I only entered it to make my purchases. If Secret of Surviving Living in Paris No. 2 is get your fruits and veggies at the ‘Arab’ markets, annex to Secret etc is once you’ve located your favorite stands, skirt the alleys of the market by advancing on the sidewalk behind them, only peneterating them for search and purchase missions.)

The very fact that all these people from all these cultures are able to advance along the narrow alleys, meandering over several city blocks, compressed between the two rows of stands of bananas, multi-colored cornet peppers, sizzling hot-pepper filled Maghrebian savory pastries being fried up by smiling scarf-wearing women, pavements slippery from being hosed down by fish-mongers, knick-knack hawkers (4 toothbrushes for 1 Euro, like everything) and spicy merguez sausage sellers, squeezed tighter than a can of (Moroccan imported) Harisa-drenched sardines without a single fight breaking out belies the image some abroad may have of a France, and a Europe, torn by sectarian strife. WE LIVE TOGETHER, AND WE THRIVE ON THIS ACCESS TO CUISINES AND GOODS FROM ALL OUR GLOBAL CULTURES. If you’re not convinced, just listen to the Chinese restaurant owner, Nigerian babushka, or English tourist (typically speaking only English) haggling with the Arab sweet-potato vendor. (I use the ethnic identifiers so you can visualize the scene, but to me they’re all French, or at least Parisian.)

Emerging from this gauntlet at Menilmontant, and after looking up the hill to salute the wall-scale painting of “nous, les gars de Menilmontant,” I returned to another other mecca, the French Arab epicerie where the same hot pepper, garlic, and citrus-infused olives and peppers that go for 24 Euros a kilo in the Southwest of France can be had for 4.60. (When I mentioned this to the owners squabbling at the cash register, the female half, clad in a black full-length gown and elegant black and white hood — the only reason I keep highlighting the local duds is to point out that it’s not like these women are being sequestered by their husbands and fathers in darkened rooms, they are fully integrated into French public life; it’s just that their scarves are more visible than, say, the wigs worn by their Hassidic counterparts which turns some French feminists beet red with indignation — replied, “All the more reason to stock up!”) The 1.20 can of Palestinian humus and 2.30 bottle of Dutch peanut-butter bringing my sack and pushing my sciatic-harboring back to breaking point, I passed through the Art Nouveau red lamps to descend into the Menilmontant Metro, only to find that the ticket machine didn’t take paper money. “You have to walk to the next Metro stop,” the dread-locked dude behind the information window informed me, which of course was Pere Lachaise, immediately torpedoing my resolution to avoid cemeteries this time around (Sarah Bernhardt, Heloise and Abelard, Jim Morrison, Marie Taglioni, Isadora Duncan, and Camille Pissarro are among the many bodies buried there) and try to find my muses (and counsels) among the living.

I perked up when I realized that this detour, perilous as it was for my dormant herniated disc, would also allow me to score my generous slice of Diplomate (like bread pudding, only moister) gateau at another of my regular Arab-European (bakery goods-wise) boulangeries. As usual, the (scarf-coiffed) matron behind the counter ignored my request not to close the paper around the Diplomate (they may have the best deserts in the world, but the French still haven’t figured out how to make a paper wrapping that doesn’t rip the top off), but given that the 1 Euro price hadn’t risen in four years, I decided to be a diplomat and not insist.

Tempted as I was to devour the Diplomate on the rim of Bernhardt’s tomb, after remembering what happened the last time I did this (“In France, we don’t dine on graves,” an uppity ersatz tourist guide had scolded me, tempting me to retort, “And unlike what you just told your clients, Sarah Bernhardt was not a star of silent cinema and had converted from being Jewish”), and considering that the now imploding sack might lead the cemetery’s entry guards to mistake me for a crazy terrorist (a terrorist crazy enough to have hatched a plan to kill already-dead icons), I instead settled for a bench facing an art deco elementary school with a tower-scale chimney, praying to all the gods I know, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Cultural, as I chawed my pudding after peeling the almond slivers off the paper, that the ideals represented by the school’s marquee won’t go up in smoke as thick as that spouting from the chimney tower:

Ecole Primaire Voltaire.

Ils sont tous les enfants de le République.

PS: If you don’t have the means and/or the celebrity to make it into Pere Lachaise (with the appetizing possibility that an obsolete necrofrancophiliac journalist might one day be dining on your grave and asking you for advice) — not to mention the massive carbon imprint your final flight would leave if you’re not lucky enough to die in France (clin d’oeil — and test to see if she’s really hanging, so to speak, on my every word — to CD), here’s an alternative that would please even my journalistic god Jessica Mitford. (And one that’s apparently even greener than Pere Lachaise, not-so-incidentally the largest patch of green in Northeast Paris.)

Advertisements

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 8: Ghosts in the Machine or, Hallucinating in Montmartre

“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow
Because Paris is a place of dreams
Françoise Hardy,
tous les garçons et les filles
Juliette Greco
Jeanne Moreau
and Catherine Deneuve
and I’m walking with Eric Satie
along the boulevards of Paris….”

–Malcolm McLaren, “Paris”

“Ce soir
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

Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.

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

AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: Thresholds, with art from Balthus, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn and PBI’s Memoir ‘Two-and-a-half with a Bullet’

balthus 7 la chat du mirroir 7 small 2From the exhibition Balthus, running through January 1 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland: “Le Chat au miroir III,” 1989–1994. Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection. Copyright Balthus.

Text by & copyright Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak
Art by Balthus from the exhibition Balthus at the Fondation Beyeler, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn (see captions for copyrights)

Today AVID offers a dialogue between PBI’s time-traveling memoirs of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating in France and the work of Balthus, on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland through January 1 and, from our archives, Ruth Asawa and Ben Shahn. Like what you’re reading? Please subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for $36/year or make a donation by designating your PayPal payment to paubenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to pay by check. This one goes out to Linda, in memory of Bill Clark. The excerpt below, from PBI’s “Cross-Country/A Memoir of France & the U.S.,” is titled “Prelude: Two-and-a-half with a bullet,” and is 90% revised from an earlier version. 

“He’s here again: the man with the child in his eyes.” — Kate Bush

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”     — Wallace Berry, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (George Braziller, New York, 1963. Illustrated by Ben Shahn)

“Songs to aging children come / Aging children, I am one.” — Joni Mitchell, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” from the film “Alice’s Restaurant”)

Mom is crying over the wooden loom that divides the dining room from the kitchen in our San Francisco Edwardian, as the fog over Noe Valley evaporates outside the window. I look up at her from the black-speckled yellow linoleum floor.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

“President Kennedy has been ass-ass-i-na-ted.”

This is my first conscious memory. (Although as my old creative writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates recently pointed out on French radio, what we think are direct memories are often memories of memories, retained by constant replay. The best teachers’ lessons are meted out over a lifetime. Which is not to say that Oates wasn’t already meting them out in 1980. After I submitted a short story in which I confessed to committing “slow suicides,” she handed me an essay she’d written, “The Art of Suicide,” not a how-to-manual but a critique of famous self-immolators: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath….Her main point was that as one can’t desire a void, for the Suicide – she used it as a noun – the wish “I want to die” is really a stand-in for something else: “I want you to love me,” “I want to you to listen to me….” Three years later another Princeton professor, Robert Fagles, would walk into Tragedy class one afternoon with a Washington Post article about a college student who had killed himself after reading the Oresteia… in his translation. Holding the clipping in one hand and tapping the book gently with the other and looking each of us in the eyes, he declared, carefully enunciating each word in his tender, resonant cadence: “I want to be sure you understand what this tale is about.” When I interviewed Fagles about his new Oedipus translation the next year for the Times, he would explain: “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.” My own thinking on the ultimate existential question – Albert Camus called it the only question —  has evolved, following the 2015 Paris suicide of filmmaker Chantal Akerman,  who once built a play around the letters between Plath and her mother, to consider the possibility that when an artist chooses to end her life, it may just be a creative way to formulate a period. Or to breach a threshold. And that we should allow these liberators of our own souls their franchise.)

As childhood memories go, I have only two of my parents together before they split up when I was 12. An electrical storm is rattling our isolated house off Bohan-Dillon Road in rural Northern California, and Dad is late returning from a visit to the Pomo reservation, reached only by a treacherous mountain road. When he finally bursts in, drenched, Mom clutches him desperately, like a fisherman’s bride embracing an errant sailor presumed lost to the sea’s caprices. (From the reservation I also remember a succulent pig roasting on a dripping spit and the Great Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1969, which started with the Indian children and terminated with my baby brother’s pink-speckled body dangling from my mom’s arms. Now that I’ve shared Jordan’s most intimate moment of affliction — to cop a term from another Princeton prof. — here’s mine:  Being bitten on the penis by a tic while climbing the cliffs above the totem pole guarding the Timber Cove Inn, which explains my aversion for going cepes hunting with my neighbor in the South of France five decades later.)

My other memory of Mom and Dad together is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tamales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress (her family hid him out in Holland during the war) hosted their annual herring festival with the dozens of children they’d adopted: Smoked herring, pickled herring, barbecued herring, fried herring, herring-shaped bread, salt-water herring taffy. (When the herring festival wasn’t on, we’d beg mom to stop at the Stewart General Store across from Fort Ross, an old Russian bastion overlooking the ocean, for beef jerky.) Dad in his broad tan cowboy hat is carefully explaining something to Mom, not looking at her, as she purses her lips and stares down at the dry brown weeds. (They would separate soon afterwards.) I resume flirting with a mulatto girl from a local school I retrieved every year on the volleyball court, not the first mulatto girl I’d fall in love with.

balthus five Les Enfants Blanchard smallBalthus, “The Blanchard Children,” 1937. Oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris.  Donation of Picasso’s inheritors, 1973/1978. © Balthus.  Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau Blanchard.

My courting of Christine LaMar that same school year, 1972-73 (also when my first cat, Kristen, was mauled to death by the O’Neils’ German Sheppard), was confined to stare-out contests across the aisle of the 24 Divisadero, until she blindsided me one morning by boarding the bus at Market wearing dark glasses. Deciding it was time to up the ante, I dedicated my first, handwritten novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a police duo who took on racial problems, to her. I also dedicated my ping-pong victories to Christine, announcing to my brother Aaron and best friend Eric before every match over our basement table: “I dedicate this game to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be __ and __ . If I lose, I will be….” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing that she was transferring to another school, I was able to declare, through tears not abated by a buttermilk donut, “If I win, I will be 187 and 9,” my final tally. It took so many dry-runs to summon the courage to call Christine and ask her out that I still recall her phone number as faithfully as Jenny’s (from the song: 867-5309): 587 – _ _ _ _. When in 1994 we organized a reunion for Rooftop – our alternative public school, one of the city’s first, was relegated to the roof of another school — I was devastated to learn that Christine had told the classmate charged with calling up other alumni that she wouldn’t be coming, as she couldn’t remember anyone. I did: Besides Christine, Monica Woo, Maura Iaconi, and Kathy D., skipping up to Jackson Park for our lunch break in a red sweater and white skirt, a beret holding back her straight brown hair, and with whom I used to exchange the kind of teasing that among 11-year-olds is another form of flirting. (Also from the lunch breaks, I recall the most popular teacher, Ernie Baumgarten — who often came to school wearing the mask of our mascot, King Kong — laying on the grass with his ear glued to a transistor to follow the Watergate hearings. At the reunion, in a Fort Mason barrack overlooking the bay, after catching up with some of us, now in our ‘30s, Ernie would commiserate, “I know that many of you are still struggling.”) I’d fall for Kathy again eight years later, in 1981 – I remember the year because we saw “Atlantic City” together, Burt Lancaster ogling Susan Sarandon bathing her naked arms with lemon juice – when she was bobbing her hair and, as often seemed to be the case that year in Noe Valley, weighing her sexual orientation. (Though this observation may be my way of processing her lack of romantic interest in me.) When I next had news of Kathy, she was trundling Agnes DeMille around Greenwich Village and living at the aging choreographer’s pad at 11th and 5th, in the same building where Duchamp schemed up R. Mutt and turned a toilet into art. When I last saw her, in 1991, it was at the memorial service for her brother, who had killed himself. Her eyes were as luminous as ever. The only Rooftop girl I ever kissed was Kerry Baum, who with Gio Coppola, Francis’s son, had formed the school’s Bopsy Twins. I’d later interview Gio’s brother Roman – who’d produced one of the first films to exploit ‘70s nostalgia, “The Spirit of ’76,” in which Olivia d’Abo time-travels back to the era and falls in love with David Cassidy – and open my interview with his mom, Eleanor, on her “Making of Apocalypse Now” documentary, by conveying my condolences on the loss of Gio, killed after being bopped on the head by a mast while sailing with Ryan O’Neal’s boy. Another Rooftopper, Chris Perry,  would grow up to be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, which I learned of while doing a story on the Quilt in 1991 and discovering his name on a panel.

Once we’d debarked from the 24 and scaled the six flights of stairs to Rooftop, school would start with Morning Circle, a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by share-time. (I’d soon be studying auto-harp at his son Jodie Guthrie’s house,

balthus the card party smallBalthus, “The Card Party,” 1948-50. Oil on canvas, 140 x 194 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Balthus.

forcing my instructor to teach me “Your Daddy’s Home,” and, later in Paris, would chow down with Woody’s daughter Nora.)  At one Morning Circle, a long-haired, freckle-faced kid named Aaron Burg divulged, “I had dried cat food for breakfast this morning. It’s actually quite good!” Another Aaron, my brother, signed his school picture to me that year, “Love, Aaron W..” And yet another would help launch my show-business career. A reporter for an about kids, by kids local t.v. show, “Whatchamacallit,” Aaron Wolf anchored a segment on Rooftop in which he said all we did was sit around reading comic books. (Actually, we made them. And Super-8 movies about vampire-heroes set to the theme from “Mission Impossible.” And tape-recorded Watergate spoofs in which I played Nixon: “Mitchell’s thinking of spilling the beans.” In 1985, regaining consciousness in the emergency room after passing out in the Herod-scale sunken mosaic bathtub of my dad and step-mom’s home while immersed in Swiss bubbles from her shop, Common Scents – I’d been nervous about a first date with an older woman, or maybe it was Kennedy’s bullet, the dread that anything can end when it’s only just begun — when the good-looking doctor asked me who the president was, I answered, “It’s not Nixon, is it?”) When “Whatchamacallit” refused to let us rebut, we decided to start our own show, What’s New With Kids?, which ran on radio station KPOO. (If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.) This lead to my being invited to audition for a new t.v. show, Kidswatch, and this oracular rejection note: “You seemed more like the brains behind the talent than an actual on the air personality.” But the Wolfs weren’t through with me yet. In 9th-grade drama, Aaron’s dreamy sister Naomi would play Roxanne to my Cyrano before she went on to play Rasputin to Al Gore, turning him into a girly-man with the image make-over that inadvertently launched a war and landed me on the front-page of France’s Communist paper, leading an American contingent demonstrating in Paris against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

shahn civil rights small

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ben Shahn, “Civil Rights March.” Copyright Ben Shahn.

Despite retaining all this minutia (I left out Inca Robbins’s nose-ring, marching with my mom against the war in 1966, and betraying the 25th Street Gang for the Jersey Street Gang, lured by Roxanne Sanchez), I have no other memories of my parents together from this period. Which is not to say I don’t have other charged souvenirs from the year we spent in Timber Cove in 1969: Knocking Aaron unconscious for four seconds; Aaron and I erecting our own fort in a cluster of trees overlooking the Pacific, and the set of Children’s Encyclopedias we stowed there getting water-logged; our discovering a typewriter in the secret attic that ringed the house; the towering redwoods outside our  room’s window whose foliage I made into faces; Aaron whining “Lemme go to sleep!” when I would not stop talking; looking under the bed for simians from “Planet of the Apes”; and obstinately refusing to return to school after glimpsing the slip of Mrs. Klein, who taught the lower grades in our little red schoolhouse of 40 kids. (I also associate a leather belt with this memory.)

PWI91668

Balthus, “The Cherry Tree,” 1940. Oil on wood,  92 x 72.9 cm. Roman Family, London. Copyright Balthus.

The upper grade teacher and principal, Mr. Cash, was run out of town at rifle-point after holding all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next to teach them about racism. (Which is not to say that racism was confined to rural California. Back at Alvarado School in Noe Valley the next year, 1970, I remember our work on the schoolyard mosaic mural – supervised by Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American artist whose World War II imprisonment had taught her the importance of education – being interrupted one afternoon by the cry “A fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!”)

balthus la rue smallBalthus, “La Rue,” 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. ©Balthus. Photo: 2018. Digital image, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Note the thick-licked, drugged-looking Black – or Arab — man assaulting the white girl, as everyone else goes blithely about their business.

From Timber Cove, I also remember plastering wine bottles with papier-maché to turn them into candle-stick holders as Christmas presents for my parents, and walking into the woods to chop down the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had, so tall we had to carry it lengthwise to get it through the doorway. And Linda Murphy, our first teacher at Fort Ross, with her shoulder-length curly blonde tresses, handing out plastic blue raincoats the same Christmas and leading us in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” And clinging to the mountainside along a narrow path teetering over a creek at the end of the year picnic, thinking that’s the first life I owe when I didn’t slip and plunge into the water.

I remember how privileged I felt when Miss Stettner, my kindergarten and second-grade teacher back in Noe Valley, came to visit us in Timber Cove. I have a distinct memory of her fording the rocks along the coast with her boyfriend in her knee-high black boots. (Retrieving Miss Stettner in 1991 teaching at a school where I was working in the after-school program, I would betray her request not to tell our common charges that she’d been my teacher, which she then denied. Joan Baez would have a similar Thanks for making me feel old reaction when, during a 1987 interview, I told her how my mom had introduced me to her at my first concert, by Bob Dylan, when I was four.) I remember refusing to traverse the field that lead to George Bohan’s house, even in my brand-new bicycle, because it was infested with wasps. And playing with our astronaut doll, Matt Mason, in an arroyo where we also discovered Pomo arrow-heads.  (Our pacifist parents wouldn’t let us have GI Joes or even cap guns. Back in Noe Valley, my best friend and his little brother had solved this dilemma by torching GI Joe and launching him from the roof of their garage.)

ruthnude2 smal

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nude.” Lithograph, 1965. Courtesy     Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

I remember returning to the woods to find the makings for a kipa for Cousin Jane and Martin’s wedding at the Timber Cove house, transformed into Fontainebleau West with all of Jane’s parents, step and birth, flown in from Boca Raton. (10 years later my mom’s young cousin, divorced from Martin, would in her turn guide me to another threshold. Seeing Camus looking out from the orange cover of Germaine Brée’s biography on the bookshelf of her Greenwich Village high-rise, and strolling on the Prospect Heights boardwalk with Jane — coquette in an orange blouse tucked into a short late-summer white dress — and her older friend Earl, a Hemingway biographer, the week before I started Princeton made me feel like I’d intellectually arrived. Even if finding a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the desk of my new roommate, Gordon Humbert Jones III, next to his neatly folded ROTC uniform made me wonder exactly where. No torching Gordon Humbert Jones III and tossing him off the roof of Princeton Inn College.) And making another kipa in the woods with Tracy Wedemeyer, who had been my girlfriend ever since we had neighboring cribs at Marin General, and the confidences we exchanged under our makeshift wedding bough. “You pick your nose too!?” (When Aaron married a Catholic girl in 1992, the red-nosed priest would let them install a kipa in the altar and crush the sacramental wine glasses with their feet. Which accommodation didn’t prevent four Jewish boys, me, Jordan, Eric, and my mom’s first ex-boyfriend Ralph – Jordan had once burst into the bedroom and cried “You’re not my daddy! What are you doing in my mommy’s bed?”  – from squirming uncomfortably when the priest began talking about the blood of Christ.) At nine, after Tracy’s family moved to Berkeley, I’d buy her a plastic engagement ring at Mr. Mopp’s. At 13, I’d have my first date as a teenager with Tracy, trying the old stretching arm around the chair and back maneuver, prompting her to lean forward in her seat in the theater where we were watching Tina Turner or Anne-Margaret bathe herself in baked beans in “Tommy,” on a double-bill with “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Where, yet another Guthrie promised, “You can get anything you want…’ceptin’ Alice.”) From the playmate who used to bite and scratch me up (“Come with me to Nursery School,” published in 1970, features a photo of Tracy using her feet to defend her swing from a pair of boys under the caption: “It’s important to take turns. Can you tell whose turn it is now?” and another of me determinedly climbing up a tree),Tracy had metamorphosed into a svelte, bronze-skinned California Girl with long straight blonde hair. When I last had news of her, she was married to a CBS Records vice-president and living in Venice Beach. When I last saw her, it was my 14th birthday, and we were both perched on the cusp of adulthood.

balthus 1 therese smallBalthus, “Thérèse,” 1938. Oil on carton on wood,  100.3 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of  Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, with William S. Lieberman, 1987. ©Balthus. Photo ©2018. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.

For my third birthday, Tracy’s father Bill had given me what is now the oldest object I still possess, Ben Shahn’s illustrated book of Wallace Berry’s poem “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three”: “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” To which Bill had added an equally poignant inscription: “Years from now, you will learn of this event….  It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream of men that some of our minds hold, that indeed man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.” The dedication is signed “Bill, Patty (Tracy’s mom), Tracy, Bill again (her kid brother), and Breathless,” Breathless being the Wedemeyers’ Saint-Bernard. (And a sobriquet I now realize, in Francophile retrospect, may have been inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film, at a 2003 Paris screening of which I was the only one in the audience to laugh when Jean-Paul Belmondo exhaled cigarette smoke after he’d already expired.)

Oh Breathless, where are you now?

dad timber cove smallChild is the father of the man: Ed Winer and his three sons Aaron, Jordan, and Paul behind the house on Bohan-Dillon Road, Halloween 1969. (The red strips of felt are for devils.) Photo: Eva Wise (then Winer).

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

Returning to its roots as a Direct E-mail List — as the most effective, efficient way to serve our subscribers, writers, advertisers, and readers — the DI will heretofore make all new content, as well as reprints from our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances on five continents, plus news, commentary, art, and the Jill Johnston Archive, available strictly by e-mail. To subscribe to the DI and access both this new content and archived stories, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. (In the latter case, the payments will be directed to our European correspondents.) You can also contact us at that address to find out about limited, well-integrated e-mail advertising options.