Wednesday? Thursday? What day is this? I'm not sure. Who cares. It's 7AM and I'm in the cafe Relais at the end of Ru Cler near the hotel Relais Bosquet. Cold rain soaks the street. The temperature in Paris is in the low 60's, but this time I've come prepared. I have on a yellow rain jacket of the type you'd wear on the deck of a sailboat and what I consider a suave-looking scarf that would appear affected anywhere else except here in the civilized heart of the artistic world. A whole slew of confident-looking professional women pass me on their way to work. I adjust the scarf for their benefit and take alternate sips and chews of the best coffee and croissant in the world.
I got in last night about 10 PM and took the Metro to my hotel, there to find the desk clerk with a message that my "odd friend" was waiting in a bar down the street. I dumped my bags behind the desk and walked the half block to a bar called the Relais Something Or Other. The people in this neighborhood really like the name "relais" because they seem to work it into everything. The word means "relay", as in "passing the torch", but what they are passing and why I cannot figure. But let's get back to Newbold Noyes III, because that's what this trip is all about. Last night I found him hunkered over a small white marble cafe table overlooking the Avenue Bosquet wearing a pair of sunglasses with one red lens and one blue. Three empty brandy glasses glistened at his elbow.
"Women," he observed, "are like cats. They hate the rain". As if on cue, a young woman wrapped in some type of clingy, black form-fitting leotard pranced past on the boulevard pressing a tiny cell phone to her ear in the manner of contemporary Parisian girls. There was a brief hissing sound as she passed and a flash of pink tongue darted out to swipe a stray drop of water from her paw.
"Cats, Joseph," he said, "using cell phones...talking with each other, plotting, planning, scheming in ways that men can't even figure....it's all a vast conspiracy of felines networked together for the purpose of fucking us over...and the sad thing is the boys don't even realize it..they think that they're in charge....but the women...the sisterhood, is what really runs the world".
The morning drizzle outside the cafe patters on the canvas awning above me. I dutifully record this detail in my worn, spiral notebook. I realize I'll be needing a replacement soon. Terry carries a notebook too, but his is a handstitched and leatherbound beauty designed to receive the lofty, luxuriously fountain-penned existentialist musings of the patrician class. I notice the man at the next table wearing the red beret and the "I Love Paris" sweatshirt is writing something on the back of an envelope. Maybe he's writing about the grey sky, the rain, and the guy in the yellow raincoat sitting across from him. But the real issue here is why we are driven to furiously scribble down every private thought to be preserved for posterity. What's so all-fired precious about our little observations anyhow? Why am I writing this? Come to think of it, why are you reading this? Ah, but you've heard all this before so I'll stop grousing and just get on with it.
THE NEXT DAY
Milky grey skies like that Gustave Cailbotte painting, you know the one with the man and woman holding the umbrella on a rainy day in the Place du Dublin with the slick cobblestones of the Rue du Saint-Petoursbourg in the background and the look of expectancy on the man's face and the strange pasty white complexion of his companion. Okay, it's called "Paris Street: Rainy Day" and maybe I'm getting too specific but it all seems to fit.
We'll get to Terry's fixation on his trapeze artist cousin Zoe in a moment, but first a word or two about the place I am staying. Number 7 Quai Voltaire is situated on the left bank of the Seine across the river from the Louvre and belongs to Terry's former common-law mother-in-law "Big Anita", whom he describes as a fantastically wealthy sculptor/artist banished to Europe by her well-to-do New England publishing family after shaming them by bailing out of an arranged marriage. All three floors of the apartment (which features four fireplaces, exposed beams, 30 foot studio skylight, Picasso original on the wall and antique carousel horse in the living room) are empty while Big Anita is away. Some of the furnishings are exceedingly clever like the Frank Lloyd Wright brass window latches and turn of the century auto lamp wall sconces but what I am most fascinated with is a phenomenon that I call The Fast Boiling Water. Owing to its exceptionally high mineral content (or some other equally simple explanation) a pot of cold tap water placed on the gas flame in the kitchen will come to a full boil within 90 seconds. To me, this is the ultimate in Instant Gratification. How many of us have awoken bleary-eyed and desperate for caffeine only to be needlessly tortured by a pot that takes forever to boil? I have to hand it to the French.They have their priorities straight.
Yes, Terry and his cousin. I asked him point blank the other night about this business of cousins marrying cousins and wasn't that a form of incest or something immoral. "Heavens no," he protested, "incest is a competely different proposition involving fathers and daughters, but you know, there are cases such as in certain Mandan Indian tribes where it's a perfectly reasonable method of strengthening the genetic line" he says, briefly pursuing an argument in favor of father-daughter relations, then seamlessly shifting the topic back to my original query.
"You see Joseph, my ancestors made their money the old fashioned way, they married it. When family fortunes begin to fall, you must acquire a fresh infusion of capital. Naturally, cousins are the first place you look. It's convenient because since you all grew up together you have common interests and so forth. And there's so much less confusion for everybody because it's the same bunch of people around the Christmas tree every year".
Zoe apparently married outside the familial circle at an early age to a French national and emigrated here to pursue a career as a trapeze artist with a small traveling circus. But Terry's fixation with her began long ago while both were in diapers. "There's a photo," he recalls wistfully, "of the two of us in the nursery, apparently taken a moment after I leapt from my crib to hers. I engaged her in a passionate embrace and covered her with ardent kisses. You see even then I knew we were destined to be together".
Destiny or not, Zoe has fled for parts unknown, refusing to take his phone calls or receive his visits. He is abject and given to plotting desperate measures. One plan revolves around standing in the street outside her home on the outskirts of the city calling her name over and over again. I feel I should try and convince him of the sheer lunacy of it, but what do I know? At least he's in love in Paris in the Spring which is more than I can say for me. I am tempted to try this cousin thing myself except all my cousins, as I recall, were vicious, snot-nosed little boys who bludgeoned me with Tonka trucks in the sandbox.
TWO DAYS LATER
Rooming with Terry is like riding the spin cycle of an industrial-sized washing machine . I've gone from having no life at all to having several at once. Last night I had dinner at a small Italian restaurant with he and a newfound acquaintance named Julian. Julian is a professional photographer whose gimmick is to wobble the camera during a time exposure to achieve a blurry, impressionist effect.
Terry of course fairly leaps on the subject and begins a rabid discourse on his own recent vocation as inventor of the kaleidoscopic placemat. His method is to take multiple color xeroxes of ordinary snapshots and slice them up into deranged patterns which are then preserved for all time between sheets of laminated plastic. He's brought some examples with him and begins enthusiastically passing them out to the various diners, waiters and kitchen help in the restaurant. Several bottles of cheap wine are consumed in the process and this spurs lots of talk about art, life, and our fabulously influential role in the vast scheme of the cosmos after which we all stagger into the street, thoroughly stewed.
On the way home, Terry spots a bateau mouche (a sort of seedy barge thing) anchored in the Seine that's been converted into an after-hours club and steers us down the gangplank for a look. Inside it's jammed with politely rowdy 20-something French kids listening to a band called (as far as I can tell) "Electric Sock". Hearing their game rendition of "Stairway to Heaven" causes Terry to promptly go off his nut and swill several boilermakers in rapid sucession. Soon, he's buying drinks for the bartender, the band, the bouncer, and a man wearing a blanket and a leather football helmet who happens to wander by. He's passing out copies of his placemats and posing for pictures with a group of confused Japanese tourists when I finally slip away and head back to the apartment at 4AM, utterly exhausted.
THE DAY AFTER
Terry has gone to a French doctor complaining of back pain. He's in a bit of a pickle because this affliction (a youthful rugby injury or misstep at the cotillion ball?) threatens to render him a virtual invalid in one of the finest walking cities in the world. The doctor tolerates his fractured French until Terry manages to utter that his "frogs are most unpleasant to the touch" after which the doctor abruptly switches to English and orders him a prescription for some opium derivative and an elastic girdle.
Later as he gobbles narcotics and gleefully models his new support garment for me I quickly realize that his present diminished physical condition automatically cancels any notion I had of renting a boat and exploring the French canal system. Deeply dissapointed, I put away my visions of drifting through picturesque villages being showered with bouquets of wild flowers thrown by rosy-cheeked peasant girls in sheer, flowing skirts and resign myself to using this opportunity to get to know Paris a little better.
Yesterday I walked all over the Latin Quarter in the icy pouring rain and got soaked to the skin despite my elaborate and costly rain-gear. I don't know if I feel the same Paris magic I did on the first trip here. Last time it was all new to me but now I feel I am just tagging the bases, Ru Cler, Blvd. St. Germain, Notre Dame, etc. What's worse, I have a horrible head cold. I am a sneezing, exhausted, runny-nosed mess unwilling to stir from my garret on the third floor of 7 Quai Voltaire. Levels below, Terry screams into the telephone, berating some minor public official in an effort to get him to throw open the doors of the Caverns at Lascaux. The caves, containing billion-year-old primitive stone-age drawings are closed to the general public and guarded with intense jealousy by the French government. "Je suis un artiste!" he bellows. Terry maintains that his research into kaliedoscopic placemats entitles him to some form of red carpet treatment when it comes to places like Lascaux. Given half a chance he will produce prisms, mirrors, bits of colored glass, and spout Rudolf Arnheim quotes in an effort to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that his placemats are the Rosetta Stone to yet uncharted new scientific horizons. Lascaux represents one of the earliest known examples of human artistic expression. Why should he be denied spiritual kinship, Terry argues, with men who outlined their palms in charcoal a million years ago on its subterranean walls? Imagine what they could learn from each other...the heights they could soar to...etc. etc. But the French aren't buying any of this. They politely refer him to a museum outside the city which contains photo murals of the cave paintings and a nice little plastic diorama featuring prehistoric bison and sheep. His muttered curses fill the apartment. I sleep.
I am coming around, with the help of some antihistamine pills. I have to take the druggists word that they are cold pills because I can't read the label on the box. I notice words like "curare" and "absinthe" in the table of ingredients but they seem to be working okay. Today I accompany Terry to a small shop on the Ave. Ste. Germain in an effort to obtain a sword cane. He says he needs the cane to fend off the advances of unsavory characters who lurk along the banks of the Seine when he goes walking in the wee hours. The shopkeeper is an old woman anxious to do business with him but insistent that he obtain the proper permit for such a weapon. Terry vows to get the official permission in short order, but in the meantime decides to buy an umbrella with a sharply pointed steel spike. This he fits with a rubber cap to effectively prevent the spike from slashing innocent passers-by and he's satisfied until some blocks later we discover that the woman has cheated him. The umbrella cost the equivalent of $50 and she neglected to give him change back from the $100 he handed her. When we return, of course, the shop is closed up tight. Terry is despondent.
The sun returns to the skies over Paris. This afternoon we are at the Musee de L'Homme (the Museum Of Man) for a screening that will be attended by ethnological French filmaker Jean Rouch, whom Terry claims he "helped" during Rouch's tenure at Harvard in the 1970's. Terry was for a time convinced that Rouch was the key to opening the wonders of Lascaux to him by virtue of the latter's vaunted position in the French Ethnographic Society. Of course Rouch would not receive Terry or take his phone calls, so today we travel to the venerable museum to view a free program of films under the aegis of something called "La Croyance De L'Autre" (The Way Of The Other?) where Terry might possibly collar Jean Rouch and force him to view his placemats.
A white haired man in his 70's appears at the front of the theatre and mumbles for a while. We cannot translate. This is Jean Rouch. He introduces a lady in her 60's who staggers to the podium and embarks on an equally untranslatable discourse for some fifteen minutes. Then the lights dim and the films begin. The first is a short, something called "Meshes Of The Afternoon", a Cocteau-like black and white puzzlment concerning a startlingly beautiful young woman pursued by visions of bread knives. From the credits we learn that the film was shot in Hollywood in the 1940's and the young woman is none other than the aged madame we saw earlier. The second film is a documentary of voodoo rituals in Haiti and contains a lot of wild dancing and animal abuse. A haughty voiceover in english informs us of details like "both the wings and legs of the chicken are broken by the voodoo priest in order that the flow of the ceremony remain undisturbed". We leave just before a goat is about to be slaughtered by the virgin queen and head over to Montmartre.
Lately Terry has been reading the diaries of Vincent Van Gogh. He's startled to learn that the Dutch painter was in love with his cousin and subsequently spurned by her. He immediately derives evidence of a sublime connection between his placemats and Van Gogh's art. I mention that Vincent had a studio in the hills of Montmartre and so we go in search of it but instead find an endless string of porno parlors and transvestite hookers lining the narrow streets. While in the neighborhood we attend an ear-splitting blues concert featuring The Robert Cray Band which seems to lift his spirits somewhat.
We are off to the Musee De La Whatever on the outskirts of Paris to see the reproductions of the Lascaux cave paintings. Buoyed by his "medication" Terry is at last content to put the matter to rest. He will attempt to commune spiritually with the photo murals, and perhaps in the process gain some valuable insight that will help him to better understand his placemats and their position in the grand scheme of things.
But it is not to be. When we arrive, the museum is closed. There is a hastily hand lettered sign that announces that the guards are on strike. Terry raps on the steel door with his spiked umbrella. A small man in a fashionable yellow rain jacket appears. He speaks no English, but the essence of what he tells us is that no one may enter today and yes, the museum is indeed closed due to a strike. "I traveled six thousand miles" Terry screams, " and you bloody well tell me you're closed? This is an outrage!" The small man just shrugs. It's obvious he's one of the striking guards and can do nothing. Terry's haranguing quickly brings a large woman in a baggy white sweatshirt to the door. Terry pulls out a map of Maine. He tells her that Maine is "New France" and that as a countryman he should be given entry. The woman speaks no English either, but manages to get across that the museum is closed to the public. "I am not the public" screams Terry, "I am an ARTISTE!". He fumbles for his bag. Dozens of placemats fall out onto the ground along with some loose pills. The guard and the woman stare at the kaleidoscopic images and at Terry, suddenly horrified.
Eventually the woman leaves but the little guard remains, perhaps fascinated by this display of exceedingly strange behavior. We communicate a bit through fractured French and pidgin English. After a while the man leans forward and whispers, "American?". Terry answers excitedly that yes, we are from the USA. Perhaps the man is going to conspire to let us in, show us through the back door. This is a fantastic break. At long last it looks as if the endless struggle to view the Lascaux paintings has come to an end! Terry extracts what was to be our lunch from his bag and awards it to the man: two bottles of beer, some bread, a bit of ham. The little man accepts it, delighted. He beckons us closer. "Bronx, New York" pronounces the man proudly, grinning from ear to ear. "Black...Spanish...Gangster!" He pantomimes firing a Tommy gun from the hip. "RATATATATAT!" he says.
Oh well. What do you expect. To many outside the US we remain a dangerous, primitive culture, unpredictable and capable of anything. Hollywood portrays America as mean streets and hot lead. But I'm not sure which is the more frightening export; tough guys blasting holes in each other with cannon-sized pistols or a man with a spike-tipped umbrella carrying a satchel full of placemats.