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.