Tag: mystique

The Girl on the Scooter

There is a square in Saint Jean de Luz, the fishing port and resort, where France touches Spain, with the Pyrenees in back and the Atlantic Ocean in front. There is a square not far from the fishing boats called Place Louis XIV, at the end of rue Gambetta. Smooth pavement surrounds the bandstand in the middle of the square, then come trees, then restaurants—Le Majestic on one side and Le Suisse on the other, plus others. The bandstand has an awning held up and out by struts at angles, making the kiosk look like a carousel. If you are lucky and sit at one of the small round tables in one of the wicker chairs, at the Suisse, at night, sipping beer or wine, chatting with friends, you will see a girl of about six or seven circling the bandstand on her scooter and all the other children—mostly younger—running around it, while their parents sip and sup. She swings her right leg out in front of her, pendulum-style, then way out in back after each push-off, holding it there for a split second for balance, as she glides around the bandstand, first clockwise, then counter, widening the circles, weaving between trees and children and benches.

It is a thing to wonder at. She talks to none of the other children, she doesn’t look over at parents seated somewhere—and therefore must live somewhere close by. I have seen her more than once. She wears grey leggings and a darker short skirt and a small jacket. Her hair is light and hangs down in a braid behind her. But then, a few minutes later, she has a different skirt and lighter leggings, and her hair hangs in two ponytails. She appears to have been too warm and had to make a pit stop, where I can imagine her mother or grandmother, or father or grandfather, helping her make the quick change, so she will lose no more time and can return to her circling.

It is not exercise, not a competition, not for sport, nor applause. It is more like soaring—something a young hawk might do for sheer delight, working both the updrafts and the downdrafts. Swoop, kick. Swoop kick. Glide, soar, flying past under the turn-of-the-century street lights, I mean the century before, leaning into the curve, leg suspended out behind, in follow-through.

Then back into darkness, then past us adults again, who sit chatting and smoking and drinking, never looking over at us, or at anyone else. We sit upwind from the smokers, look across at the Majestic, eating our baked hake and sipping wine—while she comes, unexpected, from the other direction. In and out of the trees that ring the Place, slalom-motion, updrafts of light and dark, in and out of the light thrown by the streetlights, cutting out into the dark street, where the occasional car creeps by. She has chosen a moment when there none. Then it’s back into Place Louis XIV.

After a while she is gone. You notice it afterward. The vision has dissolved, one that wanted a metaphor. Aschenbach’s Tadzio—the Polish boy in his sailor suit, beckoning from the edge of the water on a Venice beach, in Death in Venice? Except that the scooter girl beckons to no one. Nor is she Rilke’s girl in a pink tutu standing on a white circus horse, trapped in not being a girl, in being a performance and desolate. Or am I thinking some version of a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec. A girl instead of a jaded circus performer, as in The Ringmaster? The mean looking man in the black top hat.

Or is it nothing more than what it is: a reminder of free flight. Unselfconscious delight and uncomplicated purpose. A reminder of how to be. Swooping—not drooping. The opposite of performance.

So very un-Parisian.

When I think of Paris, I think of the city’s beauty.

Then I think of competition: for jobs, education, training, housing—being cool, looking cool. A little like the world of writing. “Look at me, read my book, love it, write a review in the New York Times, sell my books.” In the age of corporate publishing, where profit is the guideline.

I am not the girl on the scooter, and so I think it’s a cool idea to find a venue in Paris where I can read at an open mic, have my partner take pictures, put them up on Facebook. All part of the hustle to be seen—to be noticed in the galaxy that is Amazon.com’s list of books for sale. “Yes of course I’ll appear on Johnny Carson, give your esteemed PEN Talk, appear in front of the United Nations.”

We returned to Paris from Saint Jean de Luz in the south, near the border with Spain. I thought, “I’ll read at the Chat Noir’s open mic,” a beat café at 76 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Metro Line 2, Courrones. To do what I normally do: write and share what I write, rather than wander the streets and riverbanks as a tourist. After all, I’ve read in Guanajuato, San Miguel, many times for many years in Sonoma County, in Northern California. Why not in Paris? Had I anticipated the activity soon enough, I might have arranged a reading at a place like Shakespeare and Company—if they would have had me.

Being strangers to the scene—and I mean the Scene—we got to the Chat Noir early. Too early. Alberto Rigettini, the master of ceremonies, was not ready to take sign up’s. There were rules. I was told to return in a half hour. Alberto scolded me a little. Sign up’s were at 8 pm not 7:30. Even though the Internet had said both times.

I let the half-hour pass, then appeared dutifully at 8:00. Although I had been walking beside him to his sign-up table in a corner of the bar, he first slowly signed up two other people, who had not been ahead of me. Alberto was Italian, and now he had become Parisian. He addressed everyone in English. He warned several of us that it was not guaranteed we would get to read, since there were so many that wanted to read—even though one of the advertised rules on the Internet was that it was first come first served.

There would be three sessions, with eight readers each who would each read for five minutes. Alberto would signal when four minutes and forty-five seconds had passed. He would not tolerate a second over five minutes. He added that he would choose the order and that we would not know ahead of time who would read next.

My friend and I descended to the cellar below the bar. Others arrived, mostly young people, a few older ones like me. The young looked typically nervous, because they were going to stand up before an audience. Perhaps for the first time. There were old chairs and benches. The room was oblong-shaped and hot. I sat next to a doorway where a large fan had been placed. When the time came, Alberto turned on the fan—which produced cooler air and a substantial roar.

He wore a black stovepipe hat, ringmaster-style. He editorialized as he introduced each speaker. His tone was ironic—just this side of sarcastic. But he was not mean. There was to be no applause, he admonished. Someone lived on the other side of a wall near where the fresh air was coming from. We were to click our fingers instead.

I was uneasy. I had signed up to be the first reader in Group 1. He instead called up a young French poet, who read a good poem in English, with an edge of Sturm und Drang. Then he read it again in French—this time, harder to hear the Sturm und Drang. He was clearly one of Alberto’s favorites. Then he called on me. “Sterling, from Mexico.”

I had asked him ahead of time whether there would be a podium and a microphone. Neither, he had replied, as if his venue were the real thing and happened without the items I mentioned. I had mulled over what I would read. I chose the passage from my novel “Playing for Pancho Villa” where Frank is forced to play the piano—the stolen piano plopped down in a dusty clearing by some of the general’s men. My better senses began to tell me—too late—that a bizarre fictional scene out of the Mexican Revolution might be too far removed culturally and historically from a young, somewhat beat French audience—including from Alberto.

Plus, I had wanted to play a piano clip of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” on my iPhone, to accompany the reading. I had a small bubble speaker with me that I could plug into the iPhone. I would have to juggle everything while I read, because there was no podium. The two spot lights over me made it impossible to see the audience. I had timed my reading a couple of times. It would fall easily within the five minutes.

I began reading. When the moment came to switch on the recording of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a tune already popular in 1911, nothing happened. No sound came out of the bubble speader. I realized, because of my unease, I had not turned it on. And when I switched it on, the song had disappeared and I was looking at a new iPhone page.

I muttered an apology and continued reading. My friend appeared out of the dark and took the iPhone and speaker out of my hands. I kept on reading. Then I heard a ragtime tune being played where my friend and I had been sitting. It was a different tune and too fast. I made a slow down, turn it off motion with my hand.

It had not gone well. I was unable to measure the volume or duration of the finger snapping. I sat down. Alberto announced a new rule. Readers and audiences should monitor their phones so that they did not accidentally come on during someone’s reading, or at any time, for that manner.

My friend had taken the propaganda photos with her iPod. They had not come out well. The whole Look-I’m-reading in-Paris! had not gone well. I had given many readings, and this one had gone the least well.

It took me a while to recover, and to understand what had happened. I began to think again about the girl on the scooter in Saint Jean de Luz and how unselfconsciously she had scooted around the bandstand, gliding in and out of the light. Then it occurred to me to do what I usually do: write about my experiences to make sense of them. To write an essay or a story I tell myself I need three elements. I had only two: 1) the girl on the scooter and 2) not feeling very good about my “Paris reading.”

But the third element arrived in a few days, and it was this bit of insight—that 3) just because it’s Paris is not a good enough reason for doing anything artistic.

Four or more years ago, I had puzzled over the mystique of Paris and how I fit into it as a painter. I had taken my watercolors to a spot across from Notre Dame and to other places along the Seine. There, with no audience, I did my painting in Paris. The paintings were not particularly good. Still, I was exploring the idea of being yet again one more American in Paris.

Once, while I painted, a dredge was working under the bridge that crossed the Seine between the Ile de Cité and Notre Dame. The steam shovel, a modern diesel steam shovel sitting on a barge, brought up a metal bed head frame, blacked from years of lying in the mud. I already had three elements that had caught my attention or were on my mind: 1) that my great-great grandfather had actually been born in Rouen, Upper Normandy and 2) a bit of information about a Gestapo headquarters at 93 rue Lauriston, in the 16th Arrondissement, where French resistance prisoners were tortured and murdered by the French Gestapo—the Bonny-LaFont. 3) The Question: Who threw the bed frame down from the bridge and why? And an extra one, 4) an exhibit on the top floor of the Orsay, where I had seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives back in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium. (You can read the story “Foreground” at my blog at sterlingbennett.com. Write “Foreground” in the blog’s search slot.)

In the present case, my third element had been the act of connecting the Girl on the Scooter with my “reading” in Paris—undertaken for all the wrong reasons: stepping back into the mystique of Paris, without prior reflection, let alone wisdom; a performance dictated by a writer’s need to hustle his wares; and, finally, being as much unfree in my reading as the Girl on the Scooter had been free in her scooting. Not really having a good time, not being myself, not being in control. Instead, being more the jaded circus performer, under the whip of the ironic Alberto—the Ringmaster.



The first two weeks of June in Paris were so cold and rainy that I had to go to the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement to replace the short-sleeved high-desert shirts I had brought with me from Mexico. I paid two Euros for a heavy cream-colored wool sweater that zipped down to my solar plexus and made me look like a small-boat captain at the evacuation of Dunkirk exactly seventy years earlier. I bought a faded green Levi jacket stiff with mildew, which – from too much Marais district Orthodox strudel – barely buttoned over my English sweater. Thus equipped, I went to the Seine to paint. I wanted to see which part of the mystique of Paris I could be part of, to see what lay below the surface of things French.
I had been to the top floor of the Orsay and seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium.
There is more information you need to know. My great great-grandfather was born in Rouen, in the Haute Normandie. One recent Sunday morning, I had begun chatting with a woman sitting next to me at the Turenne Café, near the Place Des Voges. She was taking her café au lait with a group of neighborhood friends. The conversation turned to where I was from. I said I was from Mexico. But where are you from? they asked. Well, before that, California. But before that? I realized this was a question of origins. Perhaps my flea market sweater was showing and that was a clue. And so I told them about my great great-grandfather being born in Rouen.
“Then you are French,” they exclaimed, in unison. And then, in fun: “Champaign all around!” And when I left, one of them pointed to the west and enjoined: “Be French!”
At a certain bench, beside the Seine, on the Ile Saint-Louise, I moistened my squares of color and considered what I saw before me. A dredger, its filling barge and a tug sat under the Pont Louis Philippe, the bridge that crosses to Ile de Cité at the Notre Dame. The dredge itself was what we used to call a steam shovel. This one was diesel, orange, and sat on rubber wheels, on top of it own barge. Six hydraulic arms bent down to the top of the barge to give the machine stability. From the barge, two massive black stilts extended down into the river bottom, to hold the whole floating assemblage in place: the dredge barge, the filling barge, and the tug – the vessel closest to me.
Before I go on, I should mention that I took my friends at the Turenne Café seriously and decided to know more about being French. I went to Rouen in search of Edouard Dupré and stayed a week. I made many phone calls. I knocked on doors. I walked through graveyards and looked at church records. I spent many hours at the Internet site Cercle Généalogique Rouen Seine Maritime.
George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He emigrated to Kentucky and owned fifty slaves. He chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandalwood and mahogany for ship’s knees. On his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore, where they were killed by Seminole Indians. He was survived by my great-grandmother Sarah.
He had a brother Clément who stayed in France and produced generations of Cléments, the last of which fought the Germans in Normandy with the Communist branch of the French Resistance: The Front National. French Gestapo agents, a group called the Bonny-LaFont, arrested his love Marie Lambourne and said they would execute her if Clément did not give himself up. An exchange was arranged. Marie went free. Clément was tortured in the basement of 93 Rue Lauriston in the 16th Arrondissement, along with countless others. He gave up no information. Depressed, broken, and alone – with the image of Marie the last thing he saw behind his closed lids – he was guillotined one winter dawn in the building’s courtyard.
I found Marie in Rue Francs Bourgeois, in the Marais, near the Picasso Museum. She was 87 years old, five years older than me. She has a daughter and a granddaughter. Both of them are called Clémentia. I showed her all of my notes. She taught French to foreigners at the Sorbonne for many years. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I could understand. She was gracious and warm. The second bottle of wine – a Mosel – was covered in dust. She said we would not wash it because we were dealing with all aspects of the past. She brought out sheep’s cheese and three-quarters of a prodigious baguette she had purchased in that morning. She said we were cousins of some sort, and she would tell me anything I wanted to know.
I asked her about Clément. He was brave. And very funny, she said. He could blow up trains. He could also make up riddles, if we woke up anxious and afraid, early in the morning. We had a brass bed. She looked me straight in the eye, as she continued.
“There were four things then. Him, me, the brass bed, and the wonderful love we made in it.” I felt I should look away when she said this. But I didn’t.
She paused. Night had fallen. It was cool in the room. She got up slowly and turned on the electric wall heater. Then she sat down at the table again. She poured the last of the dusty wine into our glasses.
“This is the best wine I have ever tasted,” she said. “And I know it is because you have come to hear my story.” I took a sip and put the glass down.
“You probably want to know what happened to the bed,” she said. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. What I had thought about was a young woman with her eyes, together with a young Frenchman who might have looked a little like me, naked and clasped in love.
“When he died, I could not bear to lie in it alone,” she said. “I gave away the springs, and even the mattress. Then I enlisted a friend to carry the brass head frame to the river. I went with him. The Bonny-Lafont never gave me his body. The agent I dealt with said I should look for it in the Seine. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sometimes the bodies of resistance fighters turned up in the river. So did the bodies of German soldiers.”
She stopped. She took her glass and poured the last inch of her wine into my glass. She smiled, with a face full of a joy I didn’t understand. “I can’t drink anymore,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. She got up. She said she was very tired. She kissed me on both cheeks. She said we were family. She said I was indeed French and that I should take that very seriously. She said she would call me soon.
Two days later, a letter arrived. “I know you are wondering – if you are who I think you are – what we did with the bed. We walked out onto the Pont d’Acole, I think it was, and threw it into the river. Very, very early in the morning when it was still dark. I cannot explain exactly why but it made great sense to me then. Remember we are family. Come visit me soon.”
I know I have kept you sitting, for too long, on the stone bench beside the Seine, waiting to see what I would paint. Also, let me defend myself by telling you that I do not believe in straight connections. It was cold. But I had my Dunkirk sweater and my Levi jacket. The dredge worked under the Pont Louis Philippe. Its steel bucket had four large teeth for rooting and tearing on the river bottom. Over and over, it swiveled and dumped the captured silt into the filling barge along side, swiveled back, dipped in again, like a great mechanical swan feeding on the bottom, and this time – jammed in its teeth – brought up the metal head frame of a bed. The machine swiveled. It shook the bucket over the filling barge like an angry animal, and the bed fell down out of sight into the collected silt.
I know what you are thinking. And I agree with you. It was not the right bridge. The river bottom had been dredged for seventy years. Most of us are not big on miracles. Jung would have called it synchronicity – two events connected by an overly attentive mind, but not connected in actual fact.
At the same time, the main barge – the dredger – raised its two black stilts, and everything drifted twenty feet closer, with the current.
I held my brush in midair. The matter of P.H. Emerson’s heliograph negatives was coming up. The barge drifted toward me, intruding into the foreground I had constructed on my painting. It brought the mud-blackened bed frame closer. And I began to wonder who or what was becoming the dark ink accent on a ghostly Emersonian background.
I could not believe it was Marie and Clément’s bed. But I did have to believe it had been someone’s bed. The same kind of question drifted closer: Who had thrown it from the bridge, and why? What blurred negative lay behind?
When I got back to my apartment – the size of a matchbox – I found another letter from Marie, the handwriting shakier.
“I believe it was the Pont d’Arcole. Very, very early in the morning – when it was still dark. I thought the bed would find him and give him comfort – ”
Below these few lines there was a different handwriting.
“I am a friend of Marie’s. I do not know what these words mean, but she had already addressed the envelope, and they lay next to each other on her desk. I am assuming they are connected. Marie died peacefully in her chair with a book of war-time photographs on her lap. I am including my phone number, if you would like to know more. Sincerely…”
And then there was a name and the date, from two days earlier. I called the phone number, and Clémentia, Marie’s daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she said she already knew and she would like it very much if I would come to her mother’s memorial service; that she knew quiet clearly it would have been her mother’s wish.
At the service, I was warmly received in both word and gesture. Two weeks later, I sent the daughter a narrative similar to the one I’ve just told you, describing everything – except for P.H. Emerson. Two days later, she phoned and asked if I would do her a favor. She said she wanted to see the spot where the dredge had brought up the bed. I reminded her that her mother thought the spot was below the Pont d’Arcole, a different bridge. She said she had already made a decision. And so we met at three in the morning at the north end of the Pont Louis Philippe, where the dredge had been positioned. With the Notre Dame as ghostly background, Clémentia poured her mother’s ashes into the Seine. She held the empty urn – an old tea tin – in her right hand, slack at her side. The other hand, the one nearest me, held the tin’s lid. On an impulse, I put my arm around her waist. She put her lid hand around my waist, and I held her close against me as she sobbed.