Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 7: La Gamine de Montmartre meets the Famine of my Heart

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                           Copyright 2011, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

I’m hallucinating!

“Je suis venu te propose de tout refaire. Au lieu de dire tellement de conneries on ferai mieux de refaire.” 

–Lola Lafon

If you really want to experience the authentic Montmartre, the Montmartre of genuine phantoms of art and not the Montmartre of charlatans, avoid at all costs “La Butte,” the tip-top of the village encircling Sacre Coeur which is mined with tourist traps and has about as much to do with art these days as San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf has to do with fish. Start at the Metro Barbes, whose nocturnal closure opened “Les Portes de la Nuit” (the Doors of the Night) to the lanky Yves Montand in Marcel Carné’s 1946 semi-surreal fairy tale of murder and romance in post-war Paris (the adventures ensuing after Montand missed the last metro, opening the doors to a series of encounters with haunted women, wise clowns, and murderess maries and the debut of “Autumn Leaves”), or, if your legs are feeling sturdy, begin at the base of the rue des Martyrs at the Metro Notre Dame de Lorette — named for the church of the same name before whose doors Van Gogh once stood praying before heading down to the Boulevard Montmartre to sell his crepusculaire canvasses to the Galerie Goupil — and head up-hill. At the top of Martyrs, turn left down the Boulevard Rochechouart – Clichy and continue past the Moulin Rouge, then traverse the bridge over the Montmartre cemetery, tracing the foot-steps of Truffaut’s teenaged truant carrying a typewriter stolen from his step-father’s office in the 1959 “400 Blows,” and remembering to doff your beret to Sacha and the rest of the Guitrys, France’s answer to the Booths and Barrymores, reposing below the bridge in the cemetery. Then head up the winding, chestnut tree-lined rue Caulaincourt, imagining what a struggle the nightly climb from the Moulin Rouge and the boudoirs of Pigalle to his studio just off Caulaincourt on the rue Tourlaque must have been for the stunted Toulouse-Lautrec. The street broadens out at the Square Constantin Pecqueur, where Isadora once taught her charges to resurrect Greek dances, a plaque reminds you, and Steinlin fed and painted portraits of his cats in a Hausmanian apartment house towering above the square (their calico offspring still scramble for food left on the cusp of the high stone wall bordering the gardens of Sacre Coeur on the Butte by the veilles filles who’ve taken up Steinlin’s mantle). Buy a thick triangular slice of warmed-up tuna-tomato quiche at the boulangerie near the square and eat it on a bench across from the statue Paul Vannier built in homage to Steinlin, above a bronze frieze of what could be the 12 apostles dressed as mendicants lined up in a soup kitchen (except that some wag has chalked in libidinous thought balloons for each), hovering over a shallow basin of stagnant water. Across the street (as of this writing in 2016), a boutique named after the French title for Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” “Attrape-Coeur,” has stuffed more American, French, foreign, comics, and children’s literature between four winding walls than you’d think possible, even ‘zines and small press publications.

From Caulaincourt, descend the steps over the Metro Lamarck-Caulaincourt to Lamarck, where, at number 47, an artists’ collective offers classes and the occasional work-sharing space, carrying on the tradition of Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Valadon, Utrillo…. Up the street in the direction of Sacre Coeur, just below a vintage blue and white “Philips” sign, is a shop with old comic books, Montmartre chronicles of voyous and Bohemians, madames and rapscallions, and post-war memorabilia in the vitrine, including, the late summer afternoon I found myself standing in front of it in August 2001, a black four-record boxed set, “St. Germain des Pres, l’age d’Or” with songs and interviews of Boris Vian, Juliette Greco (and her lover Miles Davis), Jacques Prevert, and other lost children of the Occupation. Greco fled to Paris as a 16-year-old Montpellier girl living in Bergerac — after her mother was imprisoned by the Germans for sheltering British serviceman — and was taken in by Sartre and his coterie when the Germans released her on the Boulevard Hoch (Juliette’s sister was not so lucky). With her cohort Boris Vian, the short-lived trumpet-playing, noir- and science-fiction writing butterfly of post-war Paris running against the time-clock of a delicate heart that would explode in a frission at the age of 39 during a screening of the film based on his novel “I’ll spit on your grave,” and who introduced the Duke to France, Greco went on to make of famished post-War Paris a musical feast, providing a score of American Jazz and French Chanson for the headier political and philosophical discourse of Camus and Sartre and de Beauvoir, centered around the Club Taboo in a basement on the rue Christine. (Catch Greco in film also in Cocteau’s Orpheus.) I’d been visiting the boxed set every day, waiting for a big advertising contract to come in for the dance magazine I owned (which magazine had provided the excuse for my moving to Paris), and when it came in I finally splurged and spent the 250 francs (about $28 that August of 2001) it cost, then eagerly installed myself on the terrace of the bar Le Refuge — on top of another stairway and facing the art deco lamps and entrance of the Metro Lamarck – Caulaincourt embedded beneath the opposite stairway — to delve into the accompanying booklet.

I was ogling a full-length photo of the 20-year-old Greco, seduisant in an ankle-length skin-tight black dress, when the olive-skinned gamine next to me with the oval face and large Greco-like dark spherical eyes and bronzed curved legs under a cobalt skirt with pink roses hung up her cell phone in a huff, turned to me and declared, “Some people, their psychology is so complicated!”

Parisians and particularly Parisiennes can be notoriously cold, but there is sometimes a grace period of open-ness on the part of those freshly arrived from ‘the provences,’ their cheeks still flush with country air and their dispositions still sunny. Maureen, the gamine of 22 who’d instantly made of me a confident, had just arrived in Paris to seek work as an actress; at the moment she was reading from telemarketing scripts at night to pay her rent in a sixth-floor sardine-sized walk-up maid’s chamber off the rue Ramey in lower Montmartre. And on this August afternoon under a mellow Sun that turned her Midi tan (like Greco before her, Maureen had arrived in Paris 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.”

I listened to Maureen, enraptured, Montmartre’s romantic past re-animated before me, 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 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 selfishness — I wasn’t going to ‘get anything out of it’ so why pay for her meal? — also made me obtuse to the fact that Maureen had no money, later confirmed when she jumped the subway turnstile on her way home after we’d scaled the steep stairways of Montmartre to the Butte. (In an over-sized army surplus jacket and with her neck-length hair, she really looked the gamine as she furtively glanced around to make sure the coast was clear.) We made a date to see a movie on the rue Christine, at an art house cinema across 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…. She 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 4 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 t’es bete!” I was in effect seeing past burns; in her depressed and discouraged state, Maureen reminded me of Piper, a recovering NYU film student generation Spike Lee I’d met at a San Francisco psychology clinic where we both worked, and who was ultimately too depressed to enter into a relationship, particularly with someone eager to please. On our last date, Maureen refused to eat and I couldn’t make up my mind where to dine. (Later, I realized that it was because she didn’t have any money and knew she couldn’t count on me to pay.) So we crankily wandered the entire Right Bank of Paris, from the Canal St. Martin to the Pompidou Museum, me obstinately not finding a restaurant that pleased me and her getting more and more impatient. In the Marais, after explaining that it was the gay neighborhood, she teased me with being gay and I sulked. Finally we settled on a touristic resto where I downed a gummy steak au soupy roquefort and a Leffe which taught me that not all Belgium beers are created equal while she moped with her chin in her hands and her round eyes drooping. In the courtyard of Beaubourg (as Parisians call the Pompidou National Art Museum), as we sat on the edge of the Stravinsky fountain where Niki de Saint Phalle’s voluptuous mermaid lightened our mood by spouting water on us from her nipples, Maureen taught me a phrase I would often have use for in the coming decade, “Je hallucine,” literally, “I am hallucinating,” a fitting response to both an exorbitant check and a beautiful woman. I put it into immediate service, ‘Je hallucine”ing incessantly while looking at her up and down with my eyes wide open to try to communicate how smitten I was with her beauty, until she finally erupted, “It’s not fair, we speak French all the time, and I need to learn English! You have to teach me.”

We exchanged apologies before Maureen hopped her turnstile back to Montmartre and I headed in the other direction to cross the Seine to the Left Bank for the lonely walk home through the canyons of middle Montparnasse (to cop a phrase from John Leonard); “I’m sorry, I get cranky when I’m hungry,” I said. “Moi aussi, I’m very fatigued from working every night to midnight.” Still, as I stood on the Pont St. Michel in the shadow of Notre Dame smoking a Cuban (I was not an inveterate cigar smoker, but had become one in Paris, simply to be able to do something my government in the U.S. forbade me), the fumes mingling with the mist above the Seine, I decided not to call Maureen again. She resembled too much the morass of melancholy that was Piper. Prisoner of my past, I’d set up my own Bastille to fortify my heart. (In retrospect, this seems like a cliché, but in 2001 I was eager to find historically allusory Parisian analogies; tant mieux if they melanged love and revolution.) The next time I heard from Maureen was on September 11, 2001. I’d moved to another sublet in the Cite Falguiere next to the Pasteur Institute where AIDS had been discovered, and where my seventh-floor apartment looked out on an Eiffel Tower that seemed one block away. I’d just received a startling e-mail from one of our magazine’s writers in New York informing me, “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 see that Maureen was reaching out to re-connect — not 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 go non-mindfully, preferring to deal with instant, concrete terrorism rather than ford the unfathomable fears of the heart. I called her once a few months later but didn’t hear back. For years afterwards — usually in Winter — I would think of Maureen as I passed Le Refuge on a solitary midnight Christmas Eve ramble in Montmartre, where I’d stop to sit on the steps near the former home of Erik Satie on the rue Cortot behind Sacre Coeur and not far from the young Pissarro’s studio, imagining the melancholy strains of “Les Gymopedies,” a would-be acrobat of love — had I not come to Paris to find la femme de ma vie, after all? — grounded by his fear of flying.



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