Thursday, April 02, 2009


While reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, a book that is told from the perspective of a New Yorker living in Paris, I was struck by this passage:

Little by little, as I gained his confidence, I wormed my way into his heart. I had him at such a point that he would come running after me, in the street, to inquire if he could lend me a few francs. He wanted to hold me together in order to survive the transition to a higher plane. I acted like a pear that is ripening on the tree.
I have been such a character, not the leech, but the easy mark, the poor sap, a moneyed American in Paris.

When I was not quite twenty-one years old, having taken a semester off of college, I endeavored to explore Europe on my own for four months. I landed in Paris maybe halfway through the trip and I fell in love with it. My descriptions of the city in my journal from this period are littered with adjectives like elegant and graceful and picturesque. And though I spent many idol hours walking and sipping espresso, smoking Galoises and thinking about Degas, my most memorable time was spent at the 3 Ducks Hostel. I have included some pictures below (not mine--god love the internet).

The hostel had a bar. And the bartender was a pint-sized American painter named Jason. And when I read that passage in Tropic of Cancer, I saw myself, francs flapping in my hand, huffing down some charming Parisian Rue. Running towards Jason.

Now I would know better. I would be unmoved by his charming frankness, his tendency, shared by many men of his stature, to live large, to play commander-in-chief of social situations, to host. But not then. Then, young as I was, inexperienced, I was moved by his rough features, by the paint on his pants, his thirst for beer.

He was broke, that was clear. In addition to his post behind the bar at the 3 Ducks, he had worked out a living situation that guaranteed him a little room and a studio in exchange for picking up some kid from school every day and speaking English to him. He took me to his studio. I remember large abstract paintings, I remember yellow. I thought there was emotional content to the work. He assured me that there was not.

After we went to a bar for some beers. Stella Blanc, I remember. He told me about growing up poor in Kansas City, about spending a few days in jail. I paid for the beer, gave him cigarettes. Did I give him money?

He told me, I remember, that I seemed like a Lesbian.

I wrote him a note. I didn't remember writing it, but I made a note of it in my journal, only that I'd written it, nothing to do with its contents. What could it have said, I wonder. "I believe in you"? "Don't ever give up"? It pains me to think of that note now. Were there some francs tucked into the envelope that I left at the bar? I can't remember now. I can only remember the beer, the cigarettes and the roguish smile. The smile of a con man. I remember thinking that he was probably an alcoholic.

I left Paris and returned a few weeks later. "I saw [Jason] yesterday and he was kind of cold to me," I wrote.

That's when I met the buskers. More on that later.


Paris-Insider said...

This is such a romantiquish Parisian tale. I totally see the parallel you drew from the Tropic of Cancer. At least you didn't add a bit of Anaias Nin tragedy to the mix as well.

Ah, Paris --

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