Lutèce Diary, 35: A Dreamcatcher meets the White Pimple on the Ile St.-Louis

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Lutèce Diaries are sponsored by, among others, Ed Winer, Eva Winer, Linda Ramey, Aaron Winer, Lewis Campbell, and Sharon Savage of the San Francisco Bay Area; H&R B. and CV of Paris and Saint-Cyprien (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds of New York City; Martin Epstein of Hudson Valley, New York; Susan Kierr of New Orleans; Polly Hyslop of Fairbanks, Alaska; Marcello Angelini of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Freespace Dance in Montclair, New Jersey; and Slippery Rock University Dance. To join them, please make a donation through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check sent through the mail.)

When I passed into the valley of Ti-n-tamat, I said in my interior to [my wife] The-anegh:
The night is coming; I’m going to look for the camels.
The-anegh, sleep will not come to me [because the thought of you is ever-present].

— Elkhasen agg Ikki des Kel Amedjid (1830 – 1894), Touareg poet, translated into French by Charles de Foucauld, as cited by Amalia Dragani and published by the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge in PB-I’s translation of her article

Lay down my child
and rest your head
Gonna hang the dreamcatcher
Right over your bed.
Lay down, lay down
My baby
Don’t be afraid
Dreamcatcher’s watching
Gonna chase the bad dreams away.

— Donna Summer, “Dreamcatcher”

I fall in love too easily.

— Frank Sinatra

PARIS — Absent the red wine, I had to look for my sparkle elsewhere, and soon found it in the violette-maned, bespectacled young woman sitting 20 feet away from me dangling her fuchsia-stockinged legs over the tip of the Ile St.-Louis facing a Notre-Dame somewhat the worse for wear after 800 years. Moi, with my shining new teeth I wasn’t quite so decrepit as the church, at least on the outside. On the inside, I was still smarting from my failure the previous week-end to offer to share my clear plastic umbrella with the Paris skyline with the lissome young woman in jeans and hooded white North Face jacket standing next to me on the corner of the rue Marie & Louise waiting for a stoplight to change so that we could march under a torrential rain from the Canal St.-Martin to the boulevard Belleville. “I was afraid she’d think I was some kind of weirdo trying to ‘drague’ her,” I’d explained later to my longtime friend Anatole in his electrician’s shop while he tinkered over a silver stand-up neon-tube lamp from the 1960s. “What does that say about what I think of myself?” “You think too much is what it says,” Anatole had answered without looking up from the tangle of wires upon which he was working his magic. Then, plugging the brown chord into a multi-prise outlet which fed an amber light into the neon bar, he’d concluded: “You just need to act.”

So once the violette-haired fuchsia-stockinged nana in the school-girl style skirt had smiled at me from under her librarian-style glasses on the Ile St.-Louis — home-field advantage — I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t venture something. After we’d toasted each other — “Tchin!” “Tchin!” — over, respectively, my cup of thermos tea and her plastic water bottle, the best I could come up with (as Cary Grant, who, indicating the couples making out on benches on the Right Bank of the Seine as he stood watching from the deck of a bateau mouche with Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade” had boasted “I taught them everything they know” — blanched in embarrassment at how I was botching his legacy), was:

“Vous-etes Parisienne?”

“I’m sorry, I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and my French isn’t very good.”

“American?”

“Yes.”

“Which part of America?”

“Actually I’m English.”

“I’m part English.”

“Actually I’m from Germany.”

“Where in Germany?”

At this point (perhaps realizing I wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, even though we were now shouting at each other over a gay male couple trying to make out… as Cary had taught them) she picked up her bottle, scooped up her skirt, approached the spot where my legs were perched on a set of stairs leading down to the river, and delicately sat down next to me, as a barge bearing 10 tons of sand and 10 centuries of history passed under the bridge connecting the Ile de Cité to the Ile St.-Louis.

“Dortmund.”

“Dortmund, Dortmund. I think there’s a good dance company there.”

“I design children’s books.”

“I once wrote a children’s book.”

“Oh, you did?” she beamed (I’ve avoided using this très inexact stand-in for ‘said’ for 40 years, but it fits here to describe the delight that lit up her eyes and cheeks and also sets up the comparison between Parisian and foreign women that’s right around the corner; be thankful that I’ve not yet told you her name, thus saving you from the facile alliteration which would ensue were I to replace ‘she’ with ‘Betty’), wide-eyed with marvel.

“Actually, it’s a group of children’s stories with the umbrella title ‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told.’ They’re stories a father tells to his daughter as they wait for the mother to come home from a late Christmas Eve errand.”

“‘The Story the Sea-Shell Told’?” she encouraged me, the eyes now so wide they illuminated the delicate magenta freckles on her dimpled cheeks like Gatsby’s green light beckoning from the other side of the Sound with its dreams of some kind of epic grandeur.

“Yes, you know, that large shell, in English it’s called a conch shell” — at this point I cupped the imaginary crustacean over my ear — “where if you listen you can hear the sea?” (Years ago, after reading about a conch excursion off New York Harbor in Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel,” I’d spent an evening scouring all of Little Italy for a restaurant still serving scungilli, and finally found one down the street from my pad on W. 8th Street next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio.)

“Yes yes, in Bremen they say that you can hear the Brothers Grimm. Why did you decide to write children’s stories?”

“Actually they wrote themselves. I was going through a break-up and at the same time I was baby-sitting. I couldn’t very well sob my heart out to the seven-year-old, so I made up stories for her that at the same time served as parables to help me process what I was going through.” (It had begun innocently enough, with the woman, 12 years my senior — the perfect 36 — beaming at me across a dinner table in a Pacific Heights mansion converted into a restaurant and exclaiming “You’re so nubile!”)

“Such as?”

“Such as the story of ‘The White Pimple.'”

“‘The White Pimple!'” she said, clapping her hands together as if clamoring to hear the story as that girl had done in the Parnassus street bedroom of a San Francisco Edwardian 33 years ago. “It’s about a monster pimple?”

“No, it’s about a beautiful princess who wakes up one morning to find a white pimple on her face. She demands that her father the king do something, he engages a series of magicians who each in turn produce increasingly disastrous results: The pimple multiplies, the pimple is joined by warts, the pimples and warts turn multiple colors. Each one she kicks out the window of her room in the tower — kind of like that princess in the Tower of Nesle over there on the other side of the Seine who stuffed her dead lover into a burlap sack and tossed it to servants waiting on the sidewalk below so they could dump his body in the river — and he tumbles to his death.”

“Hah hah hah!”

“…until the last one, who takes one look at the pimple and faints. The princess rushes to his side and asks, ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong, is it my pimple?’ ‘Yes, it’s your pimple. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ From that day on, every morning when she wakes up the princess still rushes to her mirror, only now it’s not to see if the pimple has disappeared but to assure herself that ‘it’s still there. My BEAUTIFUL white pimple is still there.'”

“That’s the problem today,” the young woman assented (she’d stopped beaming). “The ads on the television and in the magazines are telling all the girls they have to be skinny and have a certain look.”

“Yes, it’s really sick when nine-year-olds are going on diets.”

“And the social networks make it worse, like Instagram.”

“I don’t know Instagram.”

“It lets you doctor your pictures, so they’re not really you.”

I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to doctor this girl’s picture. (And now I can’t imagine why I didn’t tell her this at the time. That’s me, ‘toujours en retard’ ((always late)) Ben-Itzak. Ou en bon française: ‘Lentement sur le pick-up.’)

“My name’s Paul.”

“Betty.”

“Enchanté…. Is it ‘Bette’ or ‘Betty’?”

“Betty.” Given that recently I’d been spending more of my Paris evenings watching re-runs of Mad Men than offering my umbrella to lissome Parisiennes, it was inevitable that the first girl I would meet on a rare night out would be named Betty. (And in her doll-like egg-shaped visage, look like a sort of post-modern 2019 European update of Betty Draper Francis.)

“And you design children’s books?”

“Well, that’s just one of my jobs. I also design hard rock albums. And you’re a writer!” The way she said it made it sound like I was on my way to the other side of the Seine to join Zola in the Pantheon.

“Yes.”

“This is my tenth time in Paris. I have to go back tomorrow,” we were Thursday, “and Saturday I’ll be back at my desk in Dortmund!”

Our conversation shifted to the topic of dreams after she asked about the furry white ring onto which the stumps of turquoise and orange feathers were fastened by yellow pipe-cleaners, with a red bead stringed to a sort of cat’s cradle plastic arrangement in the middle, le tout tied to my red bandana by a red ribbon. “It’s a dreamcatcher I found on the sidewalk just after crossing the frontier to Paris on my birthday,” I explained. “It’s for catching nightmares.”

“Maybe you could lend it to me. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”

“Why?”

“I keep having these nightmares.”

“What kind of nightmares?”

“I’m entering an… how do you say… elevator?”

“Like the ones in ‘Elevator for the Scaffold,’ with the Miles Davis soundtrack, where the guy gets stuck on an elevator all night after murdering his lover Jeanne Moreau’s husband.” (You’re doing fine, PB-I; a girl with fuchsia stockings who’s just come over to you on the Ile St. Louis as the Sun setting over the Seine and Notre-Dame supplies all the AT-MO-SPHERE you need starts talking elevators and instead of making like Eddie Money and proposing to share your two tickets to Paradise, you continue talking murder.)

“Well, in my dreams the elevator has no floor and I keep falling.”

“You know, in the southern Algerian Touareg dialect of ‘Tamahaq'” — on my way to this rendez-vous, a frantic bouquiniste had tried to sell me a copy of the first Touareg-French dictionary, produced in the early 20th century by the French missionary Charles de Foucauld while he was charting 2,000 kilometers of Touareg territory, that I’d been casually examining by lowering the price — “the word for dream, ‘tahârgit’ or ‘tergit,’ also means ‘nocturnal pollution.'” (This detail had been unearthed by Amalia Dragani, an Italian researcher whose paper on the dreams of the Touaregs I’d once translated for the journal Africa of the University of Cambridge.) “Myself, I seem to dream a lot about looking down at my feet and discovering I’ve lost my shoes. Or going back to school and signing up for all these classes I really want to take and then missing them.”

“Well Paul, I have to go now.” (I’m misplacing this announcement, so you shouldn’t necessarily connect it to the dreams.) The Sun was just setting over the Seine.

“Here’s my card.”

“Oh, you have a card!” Betty declared as if I’d just handed her my Legion of Honor pin instead of a very home-made looking brown business card. “I’ll look at your sites. And I’ll write you.”

Of course, me being me, afterwards I reproached myself for not telling Betty about the Open Studios of Belleville starting the next day and suggesting she delay her departure so that I could show her around ‘my’ ‘hood. (Now that I think about this logically, having been shuffled around to four different stations by the French train company to change one ticket, I understand that this might have been problematic.) When I recounted my victory — over my own inhibitions — to Anatole on Saturday, he was proud of me and agreed that just in itself, the moment was worth savoring, like a brief encounter he’d had recently with a Turkish woman on the boulevard Magenta, after which he’d told me, “Note that she was foreign. Couldn’t have happened with a French girl.” So he was not surprised when I told him Betty was German. “Foreigners just seem to be more open, less fearful,” he pointed out, than French women, an assessment I agreed with. “Yes, I remember once several years ago” — 15 actually — “I had an intern here from California. We were walking in the 16th arrondissement when we stopped for a toilet break. When I emerged a French guy was chatting Nicole up. Later she explained to me that after driving past her on his motorcycle, he’d screeched to a halt, circled back, and asked her, “You’re not French, are you?” “How did you know that?” “You’re smiling. French girls never smile.”

I know what you’re thinking: If French girls are so closed, what am I doing in France, where the odds would seem to be stacked against me, trouver l’ame-soeur-wise? But a ready smile can also be vacuous and remember, you’re talking to a guy who isn’t quick enough to offer to share his clear plastic umbrella with a damsel in distress being doused on an afternoon when “it’s raining like a cow pissing,” to cop a French metaphor. (Maybe I’ll try that line the next time: “Madame, may I shelter you from the cow piss?,” although if she’s French this may just prompt her to invert my invitation to “May I piss on you?”) But the middle passage — after the initial suspicion and before the final curdling of a wound I have no idea how I inflicted — between me and French women is usually pretty magical, or at least sympathetic. We connect, and often around subjects on which we share the same perspective.

On the first night of the cat-sitting gig up top Belleville near the Place des Fetes which had made it possible for me to be there on the Ile St.-Louis to encounter Betty that evening, I’d discovered that my client and I were in complete synchronicity on the ludicrousness of the latest fashion trend which has half the women of Paris trying to dress like Sid Vicious, with pre-fabricated holes and slices in various parts of their jeans. (“Coming over here from the Metro,” I’d told the client whom we’ll call Sylvie for now as the verdict on our future is still out, “I crossed a woman on the Place des Fetes who had so many holes in and strips of rented clothing hanging from her jeans I was tempted to ask, “Mais Madame, qu’est que vous etes arrivé?” Nodding vigorously, ‘Sylvie’ had informed me with pride (by way of affirming that she didn’t follow mode), “All my clothes are second-hand. It’s just not that important.” It was at about this moment, looking over at her from my too-wide grey Marseille jeans, third-hand striped pink short sleeve shirt, and found class project dreamcatcher attached to Texas bandana (another good omen was that she had a genuine one hanging over the bed in which I’d be sleeping while she was away), as the argyle salve ‘Sylvie”d given me continued to heal the five-inch finger wound I’d inflected on myself by reaching into my back-pack to search for my reading glasses at the Place d’Italie Metro so I could decipher the map and forgetting about the unprotected razors I’d hastily stashed there, that I’d started to fall in love with her.

Lutèce Diary, 33: Literary dreams or, why am I better at negotiating prices for old books than negotiating life?

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for an échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) sur Paris a partir du 25 mai, Le contacter à artsvoyager@gmail.com.)

PARIS — When I was 18 and getting ready to go to Princeton, I was having wet dreams of girls. Now that I’m 58 I find myself drooling over the course descriptions of Old Nassau’s department of Comparative Literature, and the girls I dream of are selling old books for one Euro.

Last night I dreamed of Maria Casarès. If you’ve read my review with translations of her 16 years of love letters exchanged with Albert Camus, shamelessly published by Gallimard last year, you know that Casarès was probably France’s leading stage and radio actress of the post-war period. And that while many of her letters to Camus, or the concerns she discussed therein, were banal — or, worse, experiences that wouldn’t be banal for anyone else, e.g. recording plays for radio, that she referred to as if they were onerous appointments with the insurance man, it’s the actress not the writer who furnishes some of the most lyrical moments in the 1,200 pages of correspondence. Whereas Camus rarely gets into the intricacies of his work and the philosophical and political problems he was working out in his novels, plays, and treatises and only gets impassioned about two subjects, Rome and Maria (and the author of “Caligula” was no Shakespeare when it came to declarations of love), some of her letters describe Casarès fearlessly melding with the sea when she finds refuge on a rocky outgrowth off the Brittany coast as the tide rises dangerously, or while running along a muddy shore in the Gironde. If I concluded that translating the Camus held no interest, I was reluctant to leave Maria behind. So I guess it’s no surprise that she should now show up as a bookseller in my dreams, still trying to get me to tell her story in English.

The book Casarès was trying to sell me in my dream, at a crowded old book market where the stands were scrunched up against one another, came curled up in a filmy plastic tube; I pulled it out and unfurled the pages before forking over the 1 Euro Maria was asking to make sure none of the ends were cut off. (The form the book came in may also have been an oneiric allusion — because I am thinking of Princeton these days, and what went wrong and what went right — to the time, and this was before I knew Apollinaire from Apollo, that I submitted a story for Reginald Gibbons’s Creative Writing 101 class in which I’d cut the pages down to one-inch wide strips with each line containing one word. Gibbons — a poet who knew it, although he did teach me the valuable lesson that when you cut the first paragraph the second paragraph is usually a better first paragraph — was so annoyed ((I guess he hadn’t heard of Apollinaire either)) that he didn’t want to pass me on to the next level, so I appealed to the professor I wanted for that course, Joyce Carol Oates, by submitting a story in which I’d blindly typed out “ELYSIUM” like she’d once channeled a dead Portuguese poet, and she over-rid him.) The book Maria Casarès sold me was illustrated with black and white linotypes of flappers on the beach. (With nary a philosopher in site.) It actually cost me less than a Euro, because just as I was getting ready to buy the tube/book, I looked down and spotted a beefy coin the size of a Kennedy half-dollar (which would situate the scene after Camus’s death in 1960) like the one given me by my high school civics teacher John Franklin, a Holocaust survivor who was always smiling and bright-eyed and told us he believed in the statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes. (John also gave me a book, Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game,” which he inscribed, “To Paul, May you fly as high as Joseph Knecht.” I hadn’t flown past page 50 when I lent “The Glass Bead Game,” in what turned out to be a permanent gift, to a page designer at the Anchorage Daily News I had a crush on as she was recovering from an appendix operation, and I can’t help wondering if my life would not have been different and reached greater heights if I had finished the book. When I last spoke to John in 2015 — we’d kept up with each other over the years — the Alzheimer’s had moved in for good and when I asked him if he remembered who I was, he answered “Vaguely.”)

In the dream, the book Maria Casarès sold me was also by Maria Casarès.

The problem is that these days I seem to have a much better knack for hooking up with books than finding my Maria Casarès (which may have played into my disdain for my idol’s love letters to his “black one,” to cite just one of the soubriquets with which Camus saluted his mistress; I was simply jealous that he had two women in his life and I had none). Thus it was that on Sunday, my last in Paris and from which I thus decided to profit by checking out five vide-greniers on the two banks of the Seine in my ongoing quest for the unexpected book treasure at one Euro, about all I had left in my pocket, I once again had better luck in scoring literature than scoring with a lady, even though I had to look a lot less harder for the lady than the book. The literary work turned out to be one I’d forgotten was at the very top of my list, Boris Vian’s “Cinemassacre,” a compendium of sketches spoofing ’50s B movies, mostly American. I’d had a short-lived project with a group of French ex-pats in New York in 2010-11 when we tried to produce the play, but the direction turned out to be too anarchistic for me. So next time, I figured, I’ll direct, if only to give myself another chance to play Jean Gabin. (Girl: “You shot him! He’s dead!” Gabin at his most gravelly: “Oui, il est mort.”) On Sunday at the vide-grenier on the rue La Villette which conducts to the rue Belleville, once the kind seller let me lift the sheet of plastic protecting his book box from the light rain, I discovered a book collecting Vian’s “Petites Spectacles,” produced for the petite cabaret revues Vian was also writing for at that time, the late ’40s and ’50s, when he wasn’t playing trumpet or cornet, composing songs, writing novels, writing poetry, writing evening-length plays, reviewing American jazz reviews, producing the first concert by Duke Ellington in France, spinning discs on the radio, and arguing pataphysics with his neighbor Jacques Prevert — it was as if Vian knew he would die at 39, while watching a seance of the film version of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves.” Besides “Cinemassacre,” the sketches include one on Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and another in which an American lecturer explains that, forget the Galls, it was actually the Cowboy pioneers who discovered and settled France. I’ll now have to seriously consider convincing my partner to substitute “Cinemassacre” for “Horse-butchering for everyone,” the other Vian spectacle I’d like to produce, which concerns a horse-butcher in Arromanches on the day of the Normandy invasion who doesn’t give a fig about “their” Debarquement, his primary concern is to marry off his daughter to the “Fritz,” or German soldier, she’s been sleeping with for four years. In any case, so far my production costs are minimal; the book cost .50 cents.

I really hoped to find more book bargains at the next vide-grenier, over on the Left Bank in St.-Germain-des-Près; after all, a vide-grenier in the neighborhood where Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, et al used to hang out had to be full of literary treasures handed down from whoever those lustres had handed them down to, n’est pas? But no: Que de dalle rue Grenelle and Blvd Raspail; junk jewelry, junk art, and a lot of bibelots (whatever those are) and fabric…. There was a 1947 edition of essays by Jean Cocteau, but as it exceeded my 1 Euro vide-grenier maximum by 1 Euro, all I can bring you is this juicy highlight: In an essay on France, Cocteau (remember this isn’t me saying this but a member of the Academy Francaise) — *writing in 1947* — compared France to a rooster who thinks it’s sitting on top of a pile of compost (thus, from which something might grow) but is really sitting on top of a garbage dump. And another where he essentially said “Now that I’ve passed 50 it’s just a procession towards the tomb.”

Finally, on the corner of Raspail and Grenelle I found a young man who was selling everything for .50 cents, including a copy of Roland Barthes’s “Fragments of an Amoureuse Discourse” which I passed on because it was too heavy for both my simple heart and my luggage and… to play during intermission at the Vian spectacle, a recording of him blowing his trumpet and coronet (if it had not already been said I might suggest that Vian blew his heart out) in St-Germain-des-Près, including on “Que rest-t-il de nos amours?,” Charles Trenet’s theme song for “Stolen Kisses,” the fourth in the five-film cycle of, you guessed it, Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel. (Try as I might, I can’t seem to get rid of him.)

I don’t know what Antoine Doinel or Francois Truffaut might have done (Trenet didn’t play in the same pool hall as any of us) if he found himself standing on a corner across the street from the Hospital St.-Louis holding a transparent Paris-themed umbrella (in which Notre-Dame still has its doomed spire) while the rain poured down next to an umbrella-less lissome Parisienne protected only by a short hooded North Face jacket, after having checked out a vide-grenier on the rue Marie and Louis near the Canal St.-Martin (passed on a small book on the glass paintings of Camille Corot; didn’t appreciate how the seller lowered the price to 1 Euro only after I walked away, nor that it was bilingual) and had his hot thermos tea on the canal under the darkened rain-imminent sky before finally walking away in disgust after realizing that four of the restaurant signs across the water were in English (including, “Best brunch on the canal!”; why can’t the Americans confine themselves to the Huppie quarters like St.-Germain-des-Près?), but not even George Brassens would have done what I did, and simply fallen in several steps behind the young woman, who from her occasionally glancing behind her must have wondered what this man was doing following her all the way to the canal to Belleville without offering to share his umbrella, but they surely would have said something like the words which only entered my mind when I realized I’d missed the moment and I’d already crossed the threshold from possible gallant to potential creep: “Madame, est-ce que je peut vous arbite?” The immediate answer to why I’d not offered to share my umbrella was that I thought the woman would think I was thinking what I actually was thinking, that I just wanted to cozy up to her.

Instead, after the woman disappeared when we hit the Boulevard Belleville and I found myself trudging up the rue Belleville under the pounding rain from which the umbrella didn’t seem to be protecting anything, getting soaked from the insides of my genuine Texas working cowboy to my acrid heart, I found myself asking:

“Why do I know how to negotiate the price of a book better than I know how to negotiate life?” And: “Why do I think so little of myself that I would assume a damsel in distress would see me as a creep with an agenda and not a knight with shining umbrella?” To which my dead girlfriend answered: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re more a follow-up guy than an opening line guy. You may not know how to flirt, but once a woman grabs you, she’s taken care of for life. There are lots of guys who can make with the lines; how many are good for the duration?”

And then of course there’s the troubling question of whether I can help just for helping’s sake, and not because the helped is a cute girl. It’s not that I don’t have empathy for others. The day before, when, as I was standing outside a toilet at the bottom of the boulevard Reuilly and the outdoor wine market waiting for my turn I heard a voice as fragile as the wind asking, “Monsieur, do you have a handkerchief?” and turned around to see a girl who might have been Renoir/Andersen’s “Little Match-Girl,” complete with the crutch, albeit otherwise dressed modernly with a suede jacket and baggy pants, touching her amber hair where a barely detectable spot of moisture indicated a pigeon had hit its mark, I was as moved as Don Quixote given a chance to ride to the rescue, pulling out a roll of pink toilet paper in lieu of a lance and asking, “Will this do?” Nor even that my motives are as dastardly as all that; when she asked “Is it all gone?” I didn’t dare to touch her hair with my fingers even though this was the only way to be sure (trust and verify), fearing she would misinterpret the gesture. And if I watched the girl as she limped away, it was only to capture all the details for this piece, including the canvas bag hanging from her shoulder which read, in pink: “No more animal testing!” Walking up Raspail Sunday, when I came upon the towering black granite statue of Captain Dreyfus in a square outside the Metro Notre-Dame des Champs plunging a sword vertically through his chest over the inscription, “All I ask is that you give me my name back,” I felt that wound. And earlier Sunday, sitting on a bench outside the headquarters of the immigrant aid association Grands Voisins on the Meridian and absorbed in my lunch of canned couscous and tuna, I sincerely, and mostly altruistically, regretted that I’d only realized too late that the woman I’d noticed in the periphery of my vision leaning on a friend’s arm a few minutes earlier, now across the street, was really struggling in her palsy-like movements, as was the older friend (mother?) she was trying with mixed success to lean on, who had to support her while at the same time restraining her poodle on a leash as they walked down the rue Cassini, a.k.a. chez Balzac.

Like Antoine in “The 400 Blows” I’ve had my own literary shrines, if not to Balzac, and now I wonder if they’ve actually taught me anything, besides the ability to write about it when it’s too late?

Lutèce Diaries / Post-mod American in Paris, 24: Mic-Mac sur le Boul Mich or, Ping-pong paddle wielding journalist armed only with I.F. Stone’s Weekly surrounded by riot police near Luxembourg Gardens + Why the Mass Deportation & Denaturalization of the 1950s makes ICE look like it takes its marching orders from AOC

Lutece may 68 two

Parisians march to demand liberation of American journalist… No, seriously, this is who the “Yellow-Jackets” (as I prefer to call them, even if the translation isn’t literal) like to think they are. Marcelo Brodsky, “Paris, 1968,” from the 1968 series “The Fire of Ideas.” Featured in the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the artist, HFFA NYC & Rolf Art Gallery.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — Seriously, all I want to do is find a playmate. In addition to fixing my teeth so she’ll be able to see me and finding a way to make what comes out of my mouth (words) fetch (earn) what comes into it, this is why I came to Paris. C’est quand meme assez simple. On Saturday, March 2, I met a pretty dazzling — let’s say awesome — candidate.  Someone who made my heart bouge as it hadn’t done since junior high school. So I returned to the same table-tennis court — at the Jardin des Explorateurs which abuts the Luxembourg Gardens — this past Saturday, paddles and balls in hand (by which I don’t mean les bijoux familial — inside joke), hoping she’d be back.

Lest you think me an obsedé, it wasn’t just for the girl, although I love the way she made fun of my defensive stance, picked up from the Chinese kid who slaughtered me in the city-wide 9-12 year-old San Francisco championships whose spin balls I couldn’t touch. There was also the excuse of a brocante (antiques stand sale) on the boulevard Montparnasse, as well as my embarrassingly virgin visit to the ‘loriette’ — gazebo to you, bub — at the top of the Jardin des Plantes since my return to see if the oldest, and heretofore crumbling, metal structure in Paris had succeeded in inspiring enough private donations to be restored (our mayor preferring to spend the same amount of money on 30-minute New Year’s Eve light shows), plus the lure of having my thermos coffee at my various favorite fountains and ponds at the Luxembourg.

I almost cried at seeing the kangaroos at the Jardin des Plantes: at the realization that I’d been too addicted to this screen to come get re-acquainted with them earlier. Hoofing it to the Jussieu Metro — in pleine student-land — on an instinct I crossed the rue Linne to check the latest offerings of a bookstore I know…. There on the ‘giant books for 1 Euro’ shelves he was waiting for me: I.F. a.k.a. Izzy Stone, in “The Haunted Fifties,” an original language compilation of the first 10 years of the independent journalist’s I.F. Stone’s Weekly. I say waiting for me because it was a reminder that Stone’s success in getting an initial 5,000 and ultimately 20,000 readers to subscribe at $5 a pop may be a way for me to go… Until I remembered that a) Stone started out with a mailing list of newspaper readers already familiar with his product, b) the ‘market’ is exponentially more flooded with words (and columnists) today and c) no one has time to read. (Not even a recent French cultural minister, who confessed as much in an interview since become infamous.)

I won’t go into all the details of Izzy Stone’s project and the connivances and conniptions of McCarthyism to which many of the initial essays are devoted because if I did we’d never get to Saturday’s near-riot in Paris which found a certain ex-San Francisco youth ping-pong championship runner-up surrounded by CRS national police while trying to impersonate Forest Gump sitting on a bench with his paddles waiting for a potential sweetheart, but among the startling (to me) revelations in Stone’s book was the December 21, 1953 piece “A Few who Fought Back,” his report from Chicago’s Walsh Hall on the National Conference to Repeal the Walter-McCarran Law and Defend its Victims, sponsored by the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, “one of the last functioning Popular Front organizations,” Stone explains. (As you’ll see, the piece is not entirely irrelevant to a site devoted to translation between languages… and cultures.) It seems that the Walter-McCarran Law and various other manifestations of McCarthyism had prompted a mass deportation and denaturalization campaign that by comparison makes ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) look like it takes its marching orders from newly elected Left-leaning Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

“The deportation drive cuts across every basic liberty,” Stone writes. “Fifteen editors associated with the radical and foreign language press have been arrested for deportation or denaturalization…. The foreign language editors arrested are elderly folk editing papers which are dying out as the process of assimilation steadily cuts into the number of Americans who still read the language of ‘the old country.’ Almost one third of those arrested for deportation are trade union members or officials…. One of the leading victims of the current drive, Stanley Nowak, was present in Chicago. After ten years as a Democratic member of the Michigan State Legislature, part of this time as floor leader, he is facing denaturalization proceedings. This Polish-born legislator played a role in the organization of the automobile industry…”

And if you think Central American (and other dark-skinned) migrants to the U.S. have it bad now, Stone continues:

“The most numerous and widespread abuses have occurred in the treatment of Mexican-Americans. Reports to the conference from Los Angeles pictured terror and lawlessness — the use of roadblocks and sudden raids on areas in which persons of Mexican origin live, the invasion of their homes without warrants, the exile to Mexico of native-born Americans of Mexican parentage. The Mexican-American community is kept steadily ‘churned up’ to maintain it as a source of cheap labor in constant flux.” During the first six months of 1953, the conference was told, “more than 483,000 persons were deported to Mexico — while almost half a million others were being brought in for low paid agricultural work.”

Others who would no doubt form the base for the founding of the United Farmworkers a decade later. At about the same time I was having those first pre-teen crushes, my hippy alternative school in San Francisco would take us on a week-long field trip to work with the Farmworkers in La Paz, California.

So having found the Luxembourg Gardens closed — no doubt indicating that there must be a “Yellow Jackets” (I’m purposely mistranslating “Gilets” for the allusion to guepes, bees, as the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” are just as annoying) demonstration taking place somewhere within five miles — my hoped-for reunion with her (the pre-teen crush’s) reincarnation in Paris in 2019 was about to be ix-nayed (Pig Latin for ‘nixed’). There I was on a partly cloudy Saturday afternoon, reflected rays of Sun emerging to flirt intermittently from the red brick buildings en face, ping-pong paddles circa 1973 and I.F. Stone circa 1950s flanking my carcasse circa 1961 with its heart preserved at the age of 12 like Forest Gump (it was seeing Tom Hanks bringing his paddle to a reunion with his amour d’enfance that had inspired me to bring my pair with me on this trip to Paris) when, all of a sudden, a caravan of ten CRS or national police vans and cars silently pulled up outside the western fence of the park. (Already I’d noticed a phalanx of the vans on the side street leading to the closed entrance of the Luxembourg.)

Lutece may 68 one

What the Boulevard St.-Michel DID NOT look like Saturday: From the Arles exhibition 1968, What a Story! Courtesy of the Paris Prefecture of Police, Memory and Cultural Affairs Department. Atypical among the archival photographs and posters on the May 1968 student and worker rebellions which have enjoyed a resurgence in during last year’s  50th anniversary of May ’68, what I appreciated about this photograph is that it humanizes the policemen.

At about this point a park security guard made the rounds to inform all of us that the park was closing.

A Saturday afternoon in Paris and not only were they closing an anodyne park whose greatest attraction is three concrete ping-pong tables (and thus vetoing my albeit remote chance to find what this city is supposed to be made for) — the tables take up more space than a nearby Lilliputian playground any respectable kindergartner would be ashamed to frequent — but the Luxembourg Gardens …. The Luxembourg Gardens which, as gardens and as the seat of the people’s representatives — the grounds are presided over by the French Senate, whose members are elected by the country’s 10,000 mayors — was being closed to the people to whom it belonged. (The counter-argument would be that this was to protect the landmarks — a fair one, given the vandalization of the Monument to the Unknown soldier at the Arch towards the beginning of this media-anointed “Yellow-Jackets” movement.)

Still, I could hardly imagine hoards of “Yellow Jackets” darting over from the Boulevard St. Michel a block away where it turned out the march was taking place, invading the gardens and, what — occupying the ping-pong tables? Moving their iron chairs to the edge of the grand fountain before the Senate building? (Officially interdit, as I had learned when it took a 7-foot tall guardian less than a minute to run over and wag his finger at me after I tried this bold move.) Adapt Marie Antoinette’s response to the bread riots — “Let them eat cake!” — by following Hemingway’s example and stuffing the pigeons bathing in the Medici fountains under their shirts to twist their necks and make pot au feu? My own deepest antipathy was directed at the marchers — at this point a motley medley of chronic demonstrators, chronic members of the dwindling French Communist party, or, judging by the different flags that flew above the crowd who eventually, respectfully, made their way up the Boul Mich towards the Place Royale, various other groups, including the unions, trying to latch on to the “Yellow Jackets” — for almost ruining my Saturday. It’s a sort of interest group politics that doesn’t give a shit about any one else, as long as they can have their little manifestation party.

I actually like French president Emmanuel Macron because he’s trying to rise above all this, and imagine France’s global role, living up to its historic importance. For example, no one was lobbying for him to commit the country to restoring some 80,000 artifacts to their African countries of origin. He just thought it was right.

Ultimately, I think they’re trying to pretend they’re the ’68ers, the student and worker rebellers of May 1968, only they’re mistaking appearance for substance. This isn’t just me saying this; the majority of voters I talk to here in Paris agree that if the initial motivations and cause of the “Yellow-Jackets” were comprehensible, now they have no idea what they want; it’s tout et n’importe quoi. And ultimately the biggest winner will be Marine Pen’s Front National, currently matching the French president’s party in leading polls for the upcoming European Union elections.

jardinplantessm17th-century drawing of the Loriette on top of the Jardin des Plantes.

Me, after observing that my local sanitaire — public toilet — on the other side of the park’s fence (the one where I’d recently rescued 2000 years of Western, Hindu, and Chinese Philosophy) was also now surrounded by mask-wearing and shield-holding black-garbed riot police, I decided to make my way over to St. Mich. A couple of blocks down the boulevard, their procession from the Seine carefully controlled by the ranks of riot police who flanked them on all sides, it was clear to me that this tame assemblage did not risk to tumble down the side streets and trash their own gardens. After crossing the street and continuing down a side street a block or so towards a university building, once the marchers and their police escort had passed I decided to return to St. Mich and sit down on a bench to enjoy the rarity of this main Paris artery completely emptied of cars and buses. Looking up at the Hausmanian balconies bathed in late-afternoon Sun, the perpetual, timeless aspect of the boulevard that being divested of cars lent it enabled me to fill the pavement with the demonstrators of 50 years ago. Later, walking down to the barred entrance of the garden allowed me to venture even further back; an organ de barbary grinder was turning his handle to feed the pock-marked cards of music to his instrument, hoping to find some clients in the groups of frustrated tourists clustered in front of the locked gates, their guides trying to explain in Italian, French, English, and Russia the reasons for the unexpected closure. (On my first Paris trip in 2000, which coincided with a museum guards strike, I arrived at the Rodin museum to find it closed with a sign posted on the locked gates apologizing, “For those who are making their first trip to Paris, sorry.”)

After, returning to the wind-swept Loriette above the Jardin des Plantes to enjoy an umpteenth cup of thermos coffee as I gazed over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris and witnessed a steady stream of huffing and puffing tourists and natives arrive triumphantly at the summit of the wooded labyrinthe, smiling to join me in the small cupola, then marveling at the sculptures in the outdoor Tino Rossi sculpture garden that lines the Seine after you cross to the quays from the Jardin des Plantes, I thought, these “Yellow-Jacket” complainers, they don’t realize what they have. They’re living in the most marvelous place in the world, surrounded by all this beauty, and they still have to find something to grouse about it. Meanwhile, the government is worried, no doubt prompted by the institutional memory of the eight or so previous rebellions whose blood still cakes the streets of Paris.

Arriving at a statue of a divided man whose head was resting on his waist over the inscription “Arthur Rimbaud, with his feet always in front of him,” after thinking “That’s me” even if my sciatic-dogged dogs felt less stable than the sculptured poet who died young and stayed pretty looked, I overheard a mother explaining to her five-year-old, “Do you see those things below his elbow? They’re vowels. It’s because he wrote a poem, ‘Les vowels.’” And thought: If a mother can still school her child on the important things, the boy’s real cultural, literary, and intellectual heritage, maybe there’s hope for France after all.