I knew the time had come when I heard the old man in his imperfect French speak a series of simple phrases that where to me lightning disguised in banality. In a dirty and obscure café in the 20th arrondisment whose name, like hundreds of other nearly identical yet curiously unique establishments in Paris was “rendez vous des amis”, he stepped through the door at around three thirty with a much younger gentleman and changed the course of my life.
“Rendez vous des amis” was the ironically pathetic corner bar where the neighborhood drained and filtered its friendless impotents at around eleven to release them a handful of soiled francs later only to draw them in at an equally inappropriate hour of the early evening for their second “apero” of the day. The barman Samir, an old kabile from Algeria looked like he’d been hit by his share of disorderly conduct over the years but was simple and kind to regulars.
His daughter, on the other hand, was a lost cause, whose forlorn beauty had attracted the corner pimps and pedophiles as soon as her father arrived in the capital city during the French Algerian war. He had bet on the waning empire and lost his shirt, his wife, and his left hand before he fled with the few hundred thousand francs he had wrung out of the poor “pied noir” community in Algiers to set up shop in a hostile and racist city.
It was his daughter’s beauty that guaranteed his income in the early days. Barely pubescent she brought a good price and he was able to become his own boss in a floundering “rendez vous des amis” of his own after four years of hard sidewalk for little “Sophie”.
When the old man and his disciple walked into the dark haven a familiar scrap between the dogged and regretful Samir and his fiery if battered little Sophie, also known a Safia, was taking place. She referred to him affectionately as the sewer dredges and massaged her feet at all hours, flirting exclusively with pathetically drunk and balding French regulars and treating any potential Arabs with the overt distain and spiteful hatred that only a victim of discrimination of multiple kinds, colors, and forms can muster.
I was sitting as far away from the eye of the storm as physically possible, to the left of the decrepit pool table and under the only functioning lamp in the back room. I took my semi regular place against the large bank of windows, far from the smoke stained walls and upwind from the bathroom door.
From there I could see across the small square, where the dealers hissed at everything that moved and might smoke, sniff or shoot, and down the hill towards Minilmontant and beyond into the greater Paris. At the time I came almost daily and fondly to my little hole of melancholy to escape my vocation and read, read, read copious amounts of literature, and naturally to drink, drink, drink, copious amounts of Samir’s on tap piss water beer.
It was the perfect hide away because no one even remotely interesting or curious ever came through the door, or the remaining interests of the bars dwindling clientele had been thoroughly rinsed and wringed out by the cruelty of factory life, unemployment, and the biting cold of the winter months. In short I could flee into an anonymous corner of oblivion and abandon myself into volumes of passionate literature, leaving heaps of unfinished work on my desk only a few hundred meters away and drown in other people’s words and a few demi-litres of beer for a few hours a day.
Consciously I was fleeing the copious amounts of work that seemed only to multiply as I approached any remote form of coherence, the impossibility of my undertaking, the sheer volume and solitude of my technique. Unconsciously I was attempting to escape, or at least delaying the inevitable confrontation with the dense scope of my vagabond experiences that I had over the years transformed into a vocation, concocting various extraneous links and programs to a bohemian lifestyle to change directions without changing my perception.
The formless dishonesty of my existence was cocooning in a Parisian café after almost ten years of miraculously comfortable survival on the road, sifting and shifting like a price fighter over acres of mined encounters and fortuitous experiences, all leaning into the wind and leading me to the epiphany of my young existence: The genuine collision between an enlightened philosophy of fluidity and adaptability, and the hollow and pitiful fragility of my self-conscience inferiority. In short I had found the mediocre remedy of book worminess and a tenacious pension for intoxication.
The old man took a sweeping glance around the bar before smiling and exchanging a series of unfamiliar salutations with Samir and offering a gracious bow to Safia. He held a wool cape between his thick and wrinkled hands and almost motionlessly caressed its wool absently, perhaps thinking of a scruffy old cat waiting for him in some dusty but well lit den where piles of manuscripts and journals competed for space among a collection of books and photos.
Plunging back into “consciences contre violence” de Zweig, I averted my curious regard from the newcomers entry but I had been absently reading for the last hour, my mind wandering into the dreary pale streets and drawing my eye into its domain of curiosity and observation. The Old Man and his young companion were infinitely more intriguing than the petty intrigues of the leather bound dealers of La Place des Fêtes. The young man unknowingly ordered two of the Vingtieme’s worst coffees as the Old Man wandered into the backroom and acknowledged my presence with a subtle nod.
His woolen jacket was somewhat creased and dusty and he had apparently made an attempt to brush the errant and dissident hairs on his balding head before sequestering them under his checkered cap. They were now dancing belligerently to and fro, catching the grey winter light and glowing in a fussy blond halo. I was captivated by the image and Zweig was relegated to a theatrical prop protecting me from any attempts at protracted conversation.
His eyes had an absent fire as he glanced around the room, his wrinkles and round nose casting shadows of surprising depth across his hollow cheeks and the place of a smile seemed forever reserved and ready to pounce across the loose fullness of his mouth, the squinting crow’s feet radiating from his eyes nearly to his temples. He swept the back room with his glance, of which my position was naturally the ideal for any thinking man, and resigned to a small table a few chairs away and facing mine. His feet shuffled slightly and I noticed his socks were unmatched, the one on the left perhaps belonging to a slender female was now stretched thin on his bony ankles and the other sagged with lazy disobedience around his leather moccasins.
He sat with charming disorder and caught my glance and held it fiercely with a curiosity that annoyed me, invasively violating my haven and its unspoken creed of disinterested and snuffed out dogged patrons who generally buried their heads in their hands to avoid direct sunlight or curious stares.
He had me, held me for a long, languishing moment. I felt like a young lover devoured by an older man for the first time after years of playing doctor with my little friends, naked and awkward. The thought of saving myself into the folds of Zweig occurred to me briefly but I was voluntarily powerless before the gentle gaze of this disheveled individual seemingly harmless in his retired old coat with his fluff of a crown floating in the draft from the open store room door.
His placid gaze broke into a humorous smile, his eyes laughing at my blushing embarrassment, my self conscious arrogance. I returned his smile with a troubled little twist of the lips and muttered a good day before darting my eyes back to Zweig, irritated and by my incomprehension. I had always been haunted by the selfish guiltiness when observed by strangers, but the Old Man had taken a small but significant place in my mind and roosted there. Doubts had been sewn. I made a gesture at Saphia/Sophie to bring me another beer and sunk deep into my chair.
The Old Mans young companion joined us in the backroom smiling easily and touching the shoulder of his companion with infinite respect and amiability before sitting down next to him and orienting his chair so they could close out the musty world and enjoy a fraternal intimacy.
Sophie brought two coffees and a demi on a clattering tray, walking awkwardly on her high heels and looking at once wise and erotically overused in the dim light.
Sophie liked me. I was white, occasionally shaven, often left a tip, and never punctuated my greetings or comments with glares or grabs at her lower anatomy. She laid her hands flat on my speckled table and offered me the vista of her plump cleavage and winked.
“tu l’a trouver?”
She stood up slowly and pivoted on her heels laughing softly to herself. By some miracle of anatomy she could turn her hips to show her posterior, give you a fine profile of her bust, and look you in the eyes before departing for her favorite barstool to harass her father.
Irritating. Decidedly everything was slightly off today, even Safia was being clever. Not that she wasn’t prone to humoristic cynicism, for she was decidedly the brightest whit it the ragtag bunch. Her tongue was an arm as well as an asset and when she wanted to cut her father to the bone she would say things like:
“rendez vous des amis, ouais, c’est ça, t’en a pas alors. T’aurait dû l’appelez rendez vous avec ta fille...mais bon, tes ni assez malin, ni assez honneté, n’est pas papa ? »
Comment which would invariably send Samir alternately into a rage or a long, guilty pouting spell where even a look in her direction by one of his faithful clients could get the latter thrown out onto the street.
She served the two coffees to my neighbors and cracked a joke about me that I dutifully pretended not to hear, something about the infinite wisdom of beer and books, which they laughed briefly but politely to, the younger of the two glancing apologetically in my direction.
Once she left an invisible curtain was drawn around the two men’s intimacy, the younger searched in his bag in silence and took out a DAT recorder and a microphone,
placing them both on the table before the Old Man and inserting a tape. He fiddled with his machine easily, checking the volume, plugging in the microphone, orienting it as his subject slowly drank his coffee in silence, a shadow of regret crossing his gaze as he watched the daily relations of la Place des Fetes with its pimps and dealers flowing on in their jagged broken cadence.
“Bon, on continue, sorry for the interruptions but I didn’t realize things would be so hectic.
“non, mais, si on se doit encore des excuse pour le hazard…
Thus began, or continued, the interview that was to alter my afternoon plans and perhaps the next seven years of my life. I became the prey of a rare form of intuitive anxiety, my sixth sense informing me that the balance was about to be tipped and I was unhappily tipsy and sleepy for the occasion. Excited and irritated I listened through my book as the young man presented Luc, whose family name I never was to know, into his microphone. Apparently a known poet and Jewish refugee who needed no other introduction for the future initiated listeners of the recordings he listened to his companion Michel with soft attention. They were long time friends, had shared their stories and their writings and Michel was honored to record for posterity the ritornelle of his maitre de pensé.
“…I would like to start this interlude, this final interlude, with an excerpt from your book, a passage from the Talmud:
simple ritornelle, which means almost nothing, A repetitive music that permits a fertile thought, fresh water for all the coming insomnia, few words to quench the thirsty soul .
Be vigilant of your thoughts, for they will become speech
Be vigilant of your words, for they become acts
Be vigilant of your actions, for they become habits
Be vigilant of you habits, for they become character
Be vigilant of your character, for it will become destiny…
I am very interested by the ritornelle, and I would like you, even if it’s very slowly, to play with the concept: before I die, I would like too…”
The Old Man Luc paused and moment, laughed internally, opened his mouth to speak with an audible exhale and retained his thought rocking gently on his lower lip before swallowing it once again into the domain of his thought. He murmured an intrigued nonsense, visible pleased by his friends question before plunging into a monologue that would last more than ten minutes.
At first slowly, he spoke in a rolling foreigners French, a French that no Frenchman has ever spoken, humble and transparent, no signs of manipulation or false modesty. The French have a most beautiful language that for the most part they are utterly incapable of using to its fullest potential. It’s like a painter with a palette full of indescribably luminescent colors trying to paint with his flaccid penis. Words too often mutilated by irony and arrogance, condescension and superiority that were concocted by lovers enraptured by the touch of their partner, a father holding his newborn son, a blind man witnessing his first sunrise.
Luc spoke a soft language I had never heard but that I, none the less, understood perfectly, with an accent at once invisibly alien and yet familiar. German, Suisse, Czech? He spoke with a quiet humility and took words like fresh fruit from an orchard to place them ornately on a crude earthen plate to be tasted and consumed slowly and without urgence. They became for me indelible, and his eyes and face rained them into the hollow space of the back room and rendered my hideout blindingly useless, turning it and himself inside out with the simplicity of a spoken jest.
Zweig sunk onto the dirty table in front of me and I no longer disguised my listening, overtly taking pages of mental notes, unashamedly lapping up the reaction they produced in me. A daunting chemical transformation was taking place between my ears, a transfusion from his simple words to my plain consciousness.
He was a failure, a prisoner of his comfort and inaction, and yet his liberty of speech contradicted its own humility, turning into itself in folds and dancing in the clear winter light, brushing with firm strokes the dim self hatred and tortured inaction I had once believed innate into the overflowing waste basket on the soiled tiles in a corner of the bar.
He was fragile and hopeful, joyful in his sorrowful quest for fulfillment. I felt ageless and unbridled, hopelessly full of an infinite patience that spoke to me from the past, whispering of the future. The time had come to fold the pages of my life into their proper origami, to loose the weight of the cold blank page and the fear and desire of the other, for the other, to plunge into the waking tide of my internal silence.
He was simple and humain, ungodlike, homely stinking. He spoke.
“I hope to write a true novel before my death, I think we can say that true writers dare enter into the obscurity of themselves, to leave individuality to understand something totally abstract and fundamental about themselves…”
“This dream, this wish, is the wish to exclude myself from the comforts of life, I am someone quite luxurious, someone very comfortable, the essence of the anti asset, anti monastique, and of course it requires structure to be monastic, which doesn’t mean to be a monk, but to be someone who knows how to concentrate and to reserve himself for something, closer to a mystic…”
Like a spring he spoke my thoughts with simplicity and I was able to expunge them, they to a meaning unto themselves. I was free from the weight of their intellectual prison and no longer felt the need to fight them to the death. To the death of my very originality, my vitality and creativity, my enthusiasm and the strength that carried me as far as I had come alone.
When I left the bar one hour later my ears were wringing and I felt the depth of the notion that I was no longer alone: that I had a hand to hold that that I could trust because it trembled. I would never see the Old Man again, never read his books or watch his films, not knowingly at any rate as I didn’t know his full name and intentionally avoided it. No need to tarnish the perfection of his lesson with the imperfection of his creation.
The truth can appear like light reflected in a lover’s eye, the source and meaning is not nearly as powerful as the transmission and translation. Color is light reflected, sound is the translation of silent vibrations. The end and the means.
I walked down the slippery hill to the end of the avenue and stood on the corner entirely lost in though. I felt truly empty, entirely without ambition and yet full to the point of implosion. I had reached terminal velocity and had never been so stunningly drunk in my life. The stories followed the passers by like an aura, everywhere people were full of their exsistance and each of them had the fulcrum to bring the other to tears, to orgasm, to fits of galloping laughter.
Fiction struck me as the multiplication of the infinite realities that surround us, reality squared. Reality struck me as the emptiness of imagination pregnant with possibilities. Cold, hard, soft and vibrant. Rational and contradictory. Insane.