By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
(To read Chapter 1, click here.)
A Story for Mimi
Mimi is dancing, spinning in a circle, arms up, in her green dress with tiny pink flowers. Her dark brown hair is half again as long as a helmet, straight, her complexion darker than her Japanese-American origins might imply. The floor of her Liberty Street parlor in San Francisco is a shiny mahogany. I recall her as six, but my mother will later tell me she was three and a half when she died. I recall croup; my mom says it was sudden infant death syndrome. She just rolled over on her side and died. My mom tells me she was fond of “Madeline,” a fairy tale of Paris written by a man, Ludwig Bemelmans, who had supposedly not spent much time there and had made his colorful illustrations after photos.
“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
lived 12 little girls in two straight lines.
They left the house at half past nine…
The smallest one was Madeline.”
I didn’t remember this fancy of Mimi’s, but years later, after my mom had told me about it, a Madeline collection suddenly appeared on a shelf at the Strand bookstore on Broadway, where I’d wandered in a daze wondering what to do about a bad relationship I was enmeshed in with a dancer, which apparition I took as a sign from Mimi, by then my guardian angel, that it was time to get out.
I say ‘guardian angel’ but to be more precise, inchoately as a child and more decisively as an adult, because my inseparable playmate died without realizing her life, I have always felt I’ve been living for two, with a sort of mandate to experience. So perhaps it was Mimi who mandated that francophilia, with the intensity of feelings inspired by its music, art, film, and literature, was the most direct route to emotional intensity without a guardrail.
As a child, this meant, besides Madeline, Babar, Tintin (Belge I know, but francophone nonetheless), “Frere Jacques” — years later, just arrived in Paris, I remember a young French girl about Mimi’s final age, dressed in an old-fashioned red skirt belling out below the waist and with a peach-colored bonnet with black ribbon over her golden locks peering out of my apartment building next-door to the Institut Pastor and singing its verses confidently — and of course, “The Red Balloon.” As with Madeline, most French acquaintances had never heard of the 1956 Albert Lamorisse short film, notwithstanding that it won a prize at Cannes. Some 45 years after seeing it, I can still recall how the music swelled when the boy hero’s friend/balloon, pelted by a gang of school bullies, withered with each stone until it finally petered out and fell, crumpled, to Earth. Less vivid is the next segment, when balloons from all over Paris converged into a cluster and lifted the boy, Pascal Lamorisse, into the sky for a flight above the city’s grey streets and towards the Sun. Later, pulled inexorably to the Belleville neighborhood high above Paris, I’d learn that “The Red Balloon” was filmed in its black and white upwinding streets, a seed planted in me for future fruition.
By high school, France for me was another story-teller whose characters brazened flying too close to the Sun, Camus — notably “The Plague,” with its message that what mattered was not the dark times, but how one lived them and above all one’s actions, comportment, and grace despite them — and Paris had become Pissarro, principally his Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning. (By the time I finally got there in person, on a fall morning in 2000, it was little more than a polluted tourist thoroughfare, a descent less precipitous than Madeline’s Champs d’Elysees, completely over-run by chain stores and tourists, its historic beauty even more affronted, but still hardly recognizable from the scene Pissarro had captured from a window on the Hotel Russe at the corner of Poissoinierre. Eventually I would learn to blot all this out and look to the horizon facing towards the Place Republique, there finally finding that Pissarro’s light and sky remained, at least, untouched, even if the boulevard itself seemed more drab and tame than when he and, much later, Montand — “So many things to see on the Grands Boulevards!” — would revel in it and feed off its human energy.)
Montand — along with Brel (another Belge) and Francoise Hardy, Jacques Dutronc, and Serge Gainsbourg, a trio of ’60s icons I was introduced to by a giant long-haired French basketball mate, Manu, born in Algeria in the critical year of 1961 — had for me become Paris, and the intensity of emotions it offered, by the time I was back in San Francisco and on Guerrero Street in 1991 after an aborted adventure in Alaska working as a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News which netted me not much adventure besides learning Alaskan Natives with AIDS were not ready for me to write about them, but did net me my first two cats, Sonia the Siamese and Mesha the goatee’d black and white. Back home in the Mission District, I was renting from my dad and step-mom the apartment into which my childhood home — a former candy store and soda fountain which my dad had converted into a living space after he and my mom split up — had been divided, the other half being my dad’s artist’s studio. (Looking more and more like Pissarro every day with his grand beard and untamed hair, he had stopped designing buildings and was now making concrete fountains and creatures out of found wood.) At night I would put on Montand, Brel, Piaf, and the trio of ’60s troubadours, pour a glass of red wine and dream of France. I think it was because I didn’t know the words that the emotional feed was more direct, mainlining into my veins; I was infused with a sense of what it meant to be French.
I guess this was when I started having a nostalgia for a history I’d never lived.