By Paul Ben-Itzak Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
Le chevalier de la tournesol
I had come to Paris in part to search for ‘la femme de ma vie,’ but a mere change in geography would not be enough; I’d have to be more bold. If I kept having to reflect before I asked someone out, I was going to reflect myself straight into the grave. “You should act like the Fool!” my best friend from the States prescribed, the Fool who doesn’t think but acts on instinct. So I decided that every time I went out I would buy a flower and give it to the first woman I saw who so inspired me, without calculation. I chose the sunflower and became the Chevalier de le Tournesol.
The first lucky maiden worked at a boulangerie I frequented on the rue Daguere, a pedestrian street (named after the inventor of the daguerreotype printing process) near the Cemetery Montparnasse where Serge Gainsbourg, another grand fool, lay buried beneath a mound of Metro tickets, a tribute left by visitors for “Le Poinconneur des Lilas,” Gainsbourg’s first-person homage to a subway worker whose job was to punch holes in Metro tickets all day (“Le trou le trou le trou le trou le petite trou,” the hole the hole the hole the little hole he laments until finally he hangs himself, ending his days in a hole in the ground). I may not have been punching holes in metro tickets all day long, but without a companion my life was starting to feel as desperate, and if I were to find someone before I ended up in my own hole in the ground, I had to start taking more risks. In New York I had found a co-worker dead in his apartment near Central Park West, his shoe half laced up; he’d been lying there more than 24 hours before anyone thought to check on him. I didn’t want to end up like that. (Of course, as I was also looking for an apartment at that time, the first thing another colleague said, after expressing shock, was “Maybe you should try to get his place?”) So here I was at the bakery armed only with my sunflower and ready for love. There were two candidates, both of whom I’d already encountered: a full-bosomed, shy-smiled boulangerista who got got all flustered whenever she saw me, and a flirtatious young woman with curly hair and coffee-colored skin. On the day I visited with my sunflower — no calculation allowed, remember — the flustered one buttoned up and the other gave me big eyes, which grew even larger when I surprised her with the flower. “Oh! Merci merci!” Returning home at twilight I overheard giggling from a park bench near the entrance to the catacombs, where Paris had buried its dead for hundreds of years before Parisians turned it into HQ for the underground Resistance to the German Occupation. There sat my boulangerista of choice, entangled with her boyfriend.
The next woman I offered my Foolish sunflower to was a lady who had despised me for years, for reasons I could never quite figure out. She was married to my original French connection, Emmanuel. I’d met Manu at a weekly pick-up basketball game in San Francisco. Long-haired, long-faced, and lanky, he played awkwardly, but he was tall — 6-foot-6 — and more important for our group of artists, lawyers, writers, teachers, and high-tech whizzes, entertaining; he always had a smile that hinted at a hidden joke that he might or might not share with you, but it didn’t matter, because just to see his amusement at the world made take it lighter. It was Manu who turned me on to Gainsbourg, Jacques Dutronc, and Francoise Hardy, the rock stars of the French ’60s whose music seduced me with the tincture of sweet French melancholy and sowed the seeds of my migration to France. There was also the Camus connection: Like me, Manu was born in 1961, the year after Camus died in a banal auto accident. Like Camus, he was born in Algeria, one of the last of the pied-noirs, the ethnic French who fled the country for France when Algeria declared its independence in 1962. Manu was also a Fool for Love… and had become one for War: He’d tried to duck mandatory military service by pretending to be crazy; and he’d met Shulamit, an Israeli, on a last-minute week-end trip to New York, where she worked in a SoHo rags boutique. He and Shulamit partied all night and said goodbye, but then Manu called her from the airport to insist she see Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire,” in which sad angels watch over humans tormented by their mundane lives, until one crosses the barrier and tries to to see if he can live a more divine human life informed by angelic wisdom. Manu and Shulamit were married three months later, a blessed event which just happened to coincide with another blessed event, Shulamit’s pregnancy. Shulamit had landed her place among a mythic French bourgeoisie that didn’t really exist any more, or at least did not ostentatiously proclaim its existence, and claimed her place like no reserved Frenchwoman would ever do. Giving me directions to their flat on the rue des Petit Carreaux (the street of little squares), a drab extension of the more illustrious rue Montorgueil (immortalized by Monet in “Rue Montorgueil, Celebration of June 30, 1878”), during my first visit to Paris, she told me “We live in the City Center,” a distinction, abandoned in 1789, that separated medieval gated Paris from its faubourgs or slums. In fact, their house was just a block from the Grands Boulevards and the arch that opened to the Faubourg Montmartre. (In this first jaunt up the rue Montorgueil, I was so into absorbing its quintessential nature as a café-lined Parisian street that probably hadn’t changed since Monet beheld it in 1878, that I didn’t really mind that the cafe terrace waiter with whom I committed the sacrilege of asking for a coffee to go only deigned to give it to me in a scalding paper-thin Lilliputian Dixie cup. Oh what I would have given to have that paper cup back when a Starbuck’s hung its shingle up on the rue Montorgueil in 2005, forever polluting the Monet-ian ambiance. This was the ironic paradox of an American arrived in Paris in 2000, in quest of a tinted Parisian past fast being evacuated by krass Americanization, the golden arches of McDonald’s butting up against Art Deco Metro portails. I was briefly re-assured later that decade when workers succeeded in occupying their McDonald’s on the Grands Boulevards for more than a year.)
Back to late September 2001: I had now been settled in Paris for three months, and Manu and Shulamit had yet to find the time to see me. On the evening in question, I entered the theater of the Cité Universite, sunflower already beginning to droop from the long walk from the Boulevard Pasteur (all the more rigorous in beat-up cowboy boots), and immediately spotted Manu, towering over everyone else with his long stringy hair, long face, and battered motorcycle jacket, and Shulamit, nervously running her fingers through her own golden tresses and scanning the crowd. “What a surprise,” Shulamit said with a transparently plastic smile. “This is for you!” I blithely responded, handing her the sunflower. She grimaced like I’d given her a contaminated piece of feces. “Oh…” As soon as the show — a horrible AIDS satire in dance and speech from a white South African choreographer, Robin Orlyn, which ended with the dancers facing off in a boxing ring — ended, Shulamit got up and placed my sunflower on the tarpaulin. “I’ll leave this for the performers.” At the after-party, she tried to bait me by suddenly erupting with, “San Francisco is the most racist place I’ve ever lived,” which is kind of like saying “There are no French people in France.” The denouement arrived when I sent out an e-mail to my circle about an anti-Semitic Montmartre landlord who had refused to rent me an apartment. “It had nothing to do with you being Jewish,” Shulamit venomously fired back. “He probably didn’t want to rent you the apartment because you smell funny and your shoes have holes in them.” I forwarded her mail to Manu with the preface. “I love you Manu, but she has gone too far this time. I don’t know why she hates me but it has got to stop.” Manu tried to calm me. “Don’t worry, I know Shulamit, she doesn’t mean anything. I will talk to her. Don’t do anything rash.” This was too much to ask. I shot back at Shulamit, “That sounds like something the Nazis would have said; ‘the Jews smell funny.'” “You are sick! Don’t ever write me again!” she answered. The sunflower had done its work, weeding a toxic person out of my life, but I had also lost Manu, my original French muse. (The next time I saw Shulamit, quite accidentally, was when I walked into an opening at a Belleville gallery which happened to be hers… on the evening of November 13, 2015, just before the massacres.)
What I loved about Manu was probably what entranced me about Sylvie, my third and final sunflower recipient: In their apparent naturalness, both evoked a Parisian ’60s I’d never lived but was nostalgic for, perhaps because it mirrored the San Francisco ’60s I grew up in. I first spotted Sylvie at the Theatre de la Bastille on the Rue de la Roquette, a street of narrow sidewalks, genuinely hip to trendy restaurants, and bookstores that leads up to the Bastille. I was there to see the first of a month of performances by P.A.R.T.S., the Brussels-based school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the most influential European choreographer of the late ’80s and ’90s after Pina Bausch. De Keersmaeker looked like what Anne Frank would have looked like had she survived the death camps, thin and pale, always sad. Sylvie looked like she was extracted straight out of the ’60s, wearing, the first time I saw her, an orange-pink knit sweater, a plain white blouse, jeans, and a red bandana-kerchief over her hair. She could have been an extra for the hippy commune in “Alice’s Restaurant.” Her beauty like her straight long dark brown hair and the light brown freckles on her cheek-bones was natural and didn’t need any make-up. Her eyes were brown and deep. On the night I first noticed her, she was confidently seating spectators. On the evening I showed up with my third and final sunflower, Syvie stood behind the ticket counter next to a thin young woman with bob-cut shining red hair over her finely chiseled features. After the latter handed me my tickets, I turned to Sylvie. “And these are for you.” Sylvie’s lips and cheeks puffed out and her eyes grew large in polite surprise — and the first smile I’d seen from hers, another melancholy French girl’s face — as she said, “Merci mais c’est une erreur, it can’t be for me.” After I insisted, “No, they are for you,” she turned to her friend and said something in French. “She says to tell you it’s her favorite, the tournesol.” Later I’d learn that Sylvie’s English was impeccable.