Parisian Sketches

Parisian Sketches 1970-72

I.Toy Boats

On the clock-dial on the facade of the Palais du Luxembourg , the hands tell us that it is six o'clock. Early evening. Sunday. The day has been hot. The sky is still very bright and suggests no clouds.

People sit all around the porous rim of the large pond before the palace grounds. Dirt, fruit and other garbage , stones, scraps of paper have collected at the dark green water's murky edge. Here and there the muck accumulates into a swamp: within, the paper scraps held together by strings of amorphous filth put one in mind of street gutters in an open market in the rain.

From the rim to almost two-thirds of the way to the center the waters are impenetrable, a texture of soured milk . Only in a small circular area radiating from the center does one see the green reflections of the trees and hedges, located beyond the stone balustrade, disengage from the pale clear blue of the sky. Here, in this patch surrounded by wide strips of green sewage, the waters sparkle with mirror reflections. At the very center stands a rectangular stone pedestal from which a jet of water-spray emerges under great pressure.

The architects have placed , around the base of this fountain and separated by ornamental sheaves of maize, a frieze of naked cupids in bas-relief. Their backsides face outwards below their naughty faces. The column of water rises vertically, lifting into the blue sky several feet above the trees in the background. The waters at the crest fan out mightily into a turbid spray, fall apart, then slope back in parabolic shapes towards the earth, their width and direction being functions of the strength and direction of the wind. Those dropping down into the pond splash on the fountain's pedestal, stirring up a basin of sparkling foam that translates into ripples moving swiftly across the surface. Just before flying off a pigeon walking about the pedestal rested , for a few minutes, under the cascades.

Pearls of water carried across the length of the pond by the wind form a fine curtain of mist in which, sometimes, rainbows can be seen. Across the pond drift a variety of toy sailboats and other miniature craft. Most in evidence is the model made of wood, with two sails, the larger and taller at the back, the one in front knotted to the bowsprit. Both sails are tied to the tall mast at the center. The sail towards the stern is further divided into upper and lower sections.

These come apart at the place where the sail pulls away from the mast, promoting the outline of a truncated triangle by the lifting of its field. The upper edge of the sail, comprised of two trapezoidal edges , ultimately fastens at the far end of the boat. The two sections of the larger sail may be colored alike, or differently. One commonly finds the front sail and the upper section of the back sail colored alike, with some complementary color for the lower section.

On some of them all three units are given a different color. One- or two- digit integers are sewn onto patches on the lower section of the large sail to the back. Effects of great charm are created around the pond by these boats , a score or so of them , each moving on an independent path and adding its own bit of color. They turn out to be the property of a vendor who stands a few feet away from the pond surrounded by his merchandise.

He rents them to the children who may be seen running and screaming in the dusty path encircling the pond, waving the long bamboo poles, decorated with stripes of red and blue, that come with the rental. They push their boats away, vigorously, with these sticks, then race around the pond in anticipation of the places where, in a few minutes, they will drift back to the rim.

Once pushed into a course, they move rapidly. Primarily, this is due to the sharp steel keel affixed to the floor. Invisible at the surface, it cleaves the water's viscosity and encourages the boat to maintain an even course. The sails are quite effective at catching the wind. This model of boat moves swiftly, in an undeviating line, without the need for any supplementary internally generated power.

It is perhaps owing to the keel that one experiences such a thrill whenever a vessel, tipping strongly under the pressure of the wind to one side, so that it is almost level with the water that laps onto its deck, keeps essentially to its linear course without a break. After the sailboats, the next model most commonly present on the pond is a smaller craft powered by a uncoiling spring.

These are usually made of plastic. They look like yachts , with little steering wheels, lounge decks and compartments in the hold, and have no sails. The mechanism that drives the propeller uncoils quite slowly; once wound up, its action persists over the length of several trajectories, each lasting as much as ten minutes, across the pond.

A boat will become stranded at the center of the pond. The propulsion of the wind is canceled by the outward force of the torrent, and the boat runs the danger of being submerged under the surface of the waters or forced against the base of the fountain, from which it can be very difficult to dislodge.

At other times, owing to a particular confluence of currents and possible defects in the rudder, one of the motorboats will become trapped within a vortex of irregular oscillations that restrict it to a fixed location. A boat which has fallen into such a regime is apt to collide with others.

Usually these collisions are not noteworthy. A motorboat and sailboat will disengage immediately, then continue on their pre-established routes with little deviation . The same behavior will be observed in collisions between two motorboats. Only in the rare instance of an encounter between two sailboats, in which their sails become entangled, is there real cause for concern: the results can be harrowing.

When this happens the complex formed from the two boats is immobilized. If they lie out of the reach of the bamboo poles they may continue to linger in the same spot until they have to be rescued. This is done by a park guard ,who must wade into the pond to retrieve them.

Boats not in the first two categories combine features of each of them: some with both engines and sails, large sailboats with mechanized propellers, and even more grandiose sailboats with accessories, portholes, hatches , guard-rails, etc.

II. Hotel Room Radiator

A radiator stands before the casement of the hotel's closed window . It is the heat from the radiator, visible in the vibrating columns of air rising from its surface, that has caused white chips of paint to flake from the casement onto the window-sill. The glare of the clouded day that enters from the street through the windowglass is filtered through the sieve of loose and yellowed threads that compose the curtain.

Attached at its center to a pin which slips ultimately into a shoulder, the large circular disk of the steam-valve is separated by a faded muslin curtain from the seven blue-gray, long and slender metal flutes anchored to the floor. Assorted objects rest on the radiator's flat surface. At the left end, an upturned circular plywood cheesebox cover. A fragment of a piece of Camembert nestles within, covered by crumpled paper. This is waxed paper, translucent, marble-white and splotched with vestiges of cheese.

At least a third of the paper's surface is covered with images, printed in dark blue and red inks, of a castle in Normandy and the manufacturer's trade name. The back of the radiator is against the window-sill, where , ( its crippled shape rigidified through the mutual action of water and starch), a white linen hand-towel extends from an exposed corner of the cheesebox over to the muslin curtain at the right. Its curled extremity rests on a patch of the curtain draped over the rightmost pair of flutes. In the intersection of towel and curtain crouches a grey woollen sock .

The forward portion of the sock is folded around itself, the remnant rolling out to the front edge of the top of the radiator without quite spilling over, (though dripping slightly into the space between first and second flutes) . Apprehended as a unity the sock, the white hand-towel and the muslin curtain make a composition in still-life. Over the handle drapes the upper part of the sock.

A black plastic electric cord winds out from underneath the muslin curtain. Its pair of co-joining veins slide around the grey tangle of the forward bulge of the sock, which it offsets from the radiator's edge. Further on it will connect with the sleek, black plastic handle of an appliance of some indiscernible function.

Re-stated: the sock is disposed in a "V"-shape , the greater portion ( including the toe, the heel and part of the foot), being folded over itself, making the bulge on the right, the opening at its top hanging over the plastic handle, while the region of the ankle rests within the cradle of the towel and the curtain. The handle itself extends over a full three of the seven flutes of the radiator - precisely, from the third flute in from the left to the third from the right. A stainless steel rod juts out to the right from the handle's stump, disappearing almost immediately beneath a small piece of the white towel that has managed to reach this far; but beyond this one discovers that a lever, also of stainless steel, lies exposed. The steep curve of its lower portion bends and disappears into a spring that lies coiled between the plastic handle and the steel rod, while its upper surface is flat.

A plastic thumb- depressor at the tip of the lever squats like a vengeful fly.

III. The Cafe Crocodile

The bench extends from the doorway to the bar. It is covered by three green cushions, with three matching cushions propped against the wall. in front of the bench stand two high, narrow tables. Four identical chairs with reticulated backs stand In front of these , an upholstered cushion on the seat of each , onto which are stitched identical designs.

This arrangement is repeated along the entire length of the opposing wall: the bench with the three green cushions, then the three cushions propped against the wall; the narrow high wooden coffee tables, just long enough to encompass the seats of a pair identically constructed chairs, ( identical not only to each other but to all the other chairs in the room), each holding a drab cushion upon which there is stitched the same rooster, disposed in exactly the same way, within a garden that does not vary from one chair to another . There are four benches installed along the length of this wall: two between the entranceway and the pillar of white brick , the other two between this pillar and the back of the long rectangular chamber. Each bench is the length of two tables, ( allowing for the small space between them) .

There is a final bench along the back wall and, if one adds to this the four benches along the side wall and the bench near the entrance on which the two young women, who have been there since early morning, are seated, one has six benches altogether. With two tables situated before each bench, there are twelve tables, and with two chairs in front of each table one has twenty-four chairs. The six cushions associated with each bench, three on the flat surface and three against the walls, provide seats for another 18 customers. One can therefore have forty-two customers seated around the tables. This does not take into account the row of stools at the bar, nor the number of standing clients which fill up the caf‚'s available space every night until 2 A.M.

The open entranceway , (this had been breached when the pair of green wooden doors opened inwardly as the gar‡on pushed down on a horizontal iron handle measuring about 2 metres in length), is disposed in the form of a triptych, the ratio of the width of the principal entry , to the smaller ones being about 3 :2. The openings on the two sides are separated from the principal entry by rectangular wood pillars, like the doors, dingy green . The span of each pillar, ( in the direction from the street into the cafe ), is approximately that of the glass panes, ( we will come to those in a moment), while their width can be no more than a third of this. Panels of wood with glass inlays , similar but smaller, ( in the same ratio as the openings) , to that of the main doorway hang from the farthermost edges of the entrance. Each panel is composed of two sections held together by hinges. They have been constructed this way so that they can be pushed inwards from the street. Each section holds seven ranges of glass panes in pairs. The panes, however, are narrower , (again in the ratio 3 : 2), than those of the doorway .

Consequently the panes of the panels are vertical, those of the doorway horizontal . Seven paired ranges of rectangular panes of handwrought glass are set into each of the two large doors: twenty-eight panes in all. The glass is roughly grained, almost translucent, peppered with deformities . Seen through them the street-world is distorted, as through a pool of glue.

Some of the panes are tinted a pale yellow. These panes appear clearer than the others. Even on overcast days one can imagine sunlight coming through them. The truth of the matter is that the view through these panes is much more indistinct: the tinted panes carry the same imperfections as the others, while the tint itself adds an additional fuzziness.

The young college student seated on the bench between the entrance and the bar wore a blue beltless dress, unbuttoned at the top. The wide, round collar was edged by a thin white line that lazily encircled the neck, its' design continuing into a cravate which flowed out of the neck and gathered together further down, on the chest, where it was fastened to the dress by a golden pin. Her hair, parted slightly down the middle, was pulled back tightly over her ears.

Sitting beside her was another young woman of about the same age. Her whole manner, as evidenced for example in her way of dressing, contrasted sharply with that of her friend. Powdery chocolate and woollen, a pullover covered ostentatious breasts. Apart from some inessential deviations, her dress closely matched her sweater in texture and design, its shortness exposing legs sheathed in chalky nylons.

Encircling her waist, a brown leather belt. A flaming orange and white foulard was tied about her neck, the ends falling onto her chest. Her right arm was supported on the table at the elbow, while cigarette smoke emerged from the hollow of her right hand. The fingernails of her long hands were manicured, spread open like the pleats of a fan and coated with red-orange polish.

Encircling the left wrist, a narrow black elastic watchband. There were rings on some of the fingers of both hands and, around her right wrist, a bracelet.

A piece of fur , of matching color, was set between front and back portions of her dark brown hair, masses of which fell across her back, obscuring the neck. Earrings soldered from many small worked metal shapes descended from the lobes of her ears.

Assorted objects rested on the table before them: a wineglass, box of paints, books, cigarettes, a folding umbrella sheathed in its case; a few dishes, an ashtray.

IV. Despair

Despite the many advantages of Jim's situation, there was really very little about it that one might characterize as enviable: neither his attractive , intelligent girl-friend, nor his secure financial position, not the strange way in which he seemed to have made peace with his soul.

One could probably fix a date on which Jim's unique talent for doing nothing had been turned from what must have begun as an agreeable hobby into a life's vocation. The evidence seemed to suggest that his last real effort had been the organization of his trip from San Francisco to France. This exploit had also more or less used up his remaining sources of energy.

He moved in with Anne-Marie less than a month after his arrival. The means of his Franco-American girl-friend, not rich but assuredly well-off, were sufficient for both of them. Anne-Marie also held a part-time secretarial job, which she needed primarily to give herself something to do during the day. She found it perfectly acceptable that, after disposing, rather capably, of the issue of survival, Jim had settled into a permanent Yogic trance.

During the winter of 1969 in Paris I was their only regular social contact. For awhile I was visiting them 3 or 4 times each week in their Latin Quarter apartment, on the rue Monge not far from the intersection of the Boulevard St. Germain and the Boulevard St. Michel. I was always welcome. In fact I was never deliberately turned away for any reason. If at first I sometimes found a reception that was less than enthusiastic, (although the error was probably unavoidable and soon corrected ) ,I had only myself to blame.

My mistake was to show up in the afternoon ,usually around 2. Jim never got out of bed until evening: this could mean any time between 4 and 8, or even 10 , at night. Jim never took offense. I knocked.The door to their apartment opened within 10 minutes . Jim would appear in the doorframe, comatose, half-naked. He knew that it was me without opening his eyes. Only 3 people ever came to this door: Anne-Marie, myself and the landlord.

"Oh...mmn...Hello.", he would mutter on his way back to bed. All attempts to rouse him were useless. Motivated by a combination of proselytizing concern , ( and, who knows , some innate sadism ? ) , I once turned up the volume of Mahler's 2nd Symphony , (the "Totenfeuer" ) , on the stereo and kept it there for 20 minutes. It had not the slightest effect on him. After that experiment I never showed up before 5. Anne-Marie generally returned from work between 6 and 7.

Did I come back for Anne-Marie, with whom I was a little bit in love, or was it because Jim's state of self-contented paralysis afforded a pleasant contrast to my life of frenetic and often meaningless activity? I do not know to this day. Casting a surreal aura akin to that in Kokoscha's painting of himself in bed with Alma Maria Schindler-Mahler-Werfel-Gropius , their apartment after nightfall presented a domestic tableau both tranquil and terrifying.

Jim would sit on the bed, his back against the wall. Their thumbs caught halfway in the act of twiddling and paralyzed in mid-air, his hands rested idly on his lap. His facial expression was unlike anything I had, or ever hope to see again : a curious mixture of Asian mysticism, fathomless despair, the sense of the ridiculous, and, for good measure, a leaven of Anglo-Saxon guilt for encouraging his bones to petrify.

I can bear witness to the fact that Jim's one occupation, when he did do anything , was to read the newspapers. Once each day he descended the 3 floors to street level and walked to a kiosk 4 blocks away on the Boulevard St. Michel. He bought several newspapers and magazines in both English and , ( for Anne-Marie and educational purposes ) , in French and, ( unless he chose to step into a cafe for an hour or so, which happened infrequently ), returned to the apartment immediately.

Once back inside, he did not re-emerge. Whenever Jim and Anne-Marie did feel the need for a change of scene, they would tour the bars of the Latin Quarter. This carried its implicit dangers: Jim could get drunk, and ,when he did, he sometimes found himself revealing to the world that in spite of his idyllic situation he really was very unhappy.

I was intrigued, no, more, fascinated by their relationship, drawn, in spite of myself, to their stable anchor in the chaos of my storm-tossed existence. Spiritual benefit was to be gleaned even from the spectacle of Jim's terrifying inertia. Persons frozen in all their responses can make good audiences, the pure passive receptors that people the dreams , (as witness the film 'Dinner with Andre ') , of many an artist. I could talk with Jim for hours about my life, my work, my intimate personal problems, being interrupted just once in awhile by a few friendly coaxings such as " What happened next?", or, " I know what you mean. I went through something similar back in 1962 ". Afterwards I would come away with a bittersweet sensation of rejuvenation at the source.

Nor did I ever know just how much he was absorbing of my interminable and rambling monologues . It was a drug, a form of self- deception: my need grew with its gratification. Glancing up at him from time to time I had the impression that he knew everything I had to say before my saying it, that within the profound depths of his judicious silence there lay hidden a superior wisdom, a knowing disdain for all the banal trivia that filled my days with anger, passion and anguish.

And Anne-Marie, her also I needed. I was in love with her: she was the only woman in my life. Never had I seen such an example of selfless feminine dedication to a man, such self-satisfaction, such complete contentment through being the eternal servant to another who, for all her assiduous loving care, gave never anything in return, not even a word of thanks. If anything could cure Jim, it would be those blankets of tenderness that she draped in many pleated folds around his wounded soul. Her ambitions were reduced to a single goal : to be with Jim, every day, every hour, for the rest of her life.

She never felt right in leaving him alone: there might always arise the need to do something for him that he was unable to do for himself , or else to comfort him in his misery. To pass away the empty hours she painted flower patterns on box-lids, read, or listened to music. When I was there she conversed. This was good for Jim too, because it gave him the confidence to open up. When he did so his opinions demonstrated intelligence and careful consideration. With nothing else to occupy him, he passed at least some part of his vacant days in thinking. It did not take me long to recognize that I had to give up all hope of weaning Anne-Marie away from Jim and into my life, room, or bed. An "Anne-Marie" is as unable to function without a "Jim", as the existence of a "Jim" necessitates an "Anne-Marie". Only someone exactly like him could persuade her to leave him. It would drive me to the asylum - any asylum will do - to live like Jim for even one day.

It was a few days after Christmas, 1969 . Anne-Marie and Jim had spent the holiday evening in their usual way , that is, sitting at home. A few days later the excitement of the season having penetrated even to these remote fastnesses, they went out for a night on the town. Anne-Marie had told me they would be out late, but invited me, if I were up to it, to come around after 2 A.M.

She opened the door for me when I showed up .

"Come on in."

She was always glad to see me, more so tonight than ever.I stepped inside and we moved to the bedroom. There was Jim, lying unconscious on the bed, fully dressed, the slipcover tangled up with his arms and legs. His opened mouth gave him an agonized look, while his left hand was sticking out awkwardly into the air like a famine victim's paralyzed limb.

"Sit down and talk to me." Her face was both embarrassed and radiant.When I was seated she went on:

"He's been drinking. I've had more than was good for me, too."

I regarded, with a sort of perplexed horror, the unconventional posture into which her invalid had worked himself, then turned back to her, anxious for more details: "He wasn't watching himself. ", she explained, "He collapsed over the bar. The bartender helped me get him into a taxi."

We sat down and talked in whispers ; that is to say, I spoke in a whisper, while she replied in her normal tone of voice which never rose above a frail rasp. The moment had come, I told myself, for delivering a sermon I'd been saving for just such an occasion. I began by dwelling on the negative psychological effects to most human beings of letting the days accumulate without having anything to show for them. As I pointed out to her:

"It's terribly demoralizing, doing nothing." She didn't agree:

" Don't we all do nothing? Aren't all our lives useless?"

What was self-evident to me did not appear so to her. Her reaction was one of bewilderment: " I don't know what you mean...he reads.. he thinks...that's doing something, isn't it?"

I decided to drop this line of argument and start over again:

" It's my opinion", I began boldly, "that you've been neglecting the most important function of a woman with respect to her man. The Creator of all things made Woman to put tacks under Man's behind. That's the only way anything has even been accomplished in this world."

She laughed; I went on: " You've been letting him wallow in instinctual sloth, the natural state of the masculine animal unless women goad them out of it." Proud of this theory of the reciprocal obligations of women and men , developed on the spur of the moment, I continued the momentum:

"I want to give you a box of thumbtacks for a Christmas present. You can put them in the bed when you get up to leave in the morning."

We were startled by a groaned sound. Jim had rolled over and was lying face upwards, like the Paleolithic man frozen in Alpine snows. He was grinning from ear to ear: partly from the conversation which he could hear through the mists engulfing his consciousness, and partly from what registered on his face as some newly surfaced astonishingly silly reflection.

" If you can't find a job for him, give him some make-work. Anne-Marie, starting tomorrow, I want you to lock him out. Don't let him back in until he's made a translation of the first two pages of Le Monde ."

Klough !Flump! Jim had rolled over and fallen off the bed. Now he lay flat on his belly, his face pressed downwards on the floor. I commented:

"He's really got it bad."

"He finished over a litre of wine by himself.", she confessed, "Then he began drinking beer."

We stood over Jim at opposite ends, observing him curiously. He was moaning quietly. Then he began throwing up. The vomit covered the floor in a thin layer. Too exhausted even to sit up, he rolled his face back and forth in the slime. Ann-Marie ran into the bathroom and came back with a piece of stiff cardboard which she shoved between his face and the floor.

I suggested that we should sit him up. There was not one active muscle in his body; it was all dead weight. Finally, by leaning his head far forward , we managed to balance him to a sitting position . Anne-Marie stood behind him, supporting his back with her legs and free left arm. With her right hand she propped the cardboard in front of his mouth, but his regurgitation had stopped for the moment. When she stepped aside , he immediately collapsed backwards onto the floor again , laying the back of his head in the vomit.

Then his legs went out of control and, gripped by seizures, began thrashing about the floor. I had to jump quickly to the other side of the room to keep my ankles away from the cutting edges of his heels . Expressive as ever, his face was contracted under the force of some hideous speculation . Then he was weeping, uttering incredible howls , like a slave in bondage , the cries of someone heaving a crushing burden of despair up from the depths. That there were people walking around in the light of day with so much torture bottled up inside of them, without ever giving the least indication of it beyond their pathological passivity, had been foreign to all my experience.

His cries soon diminished , the tension faded from his body, and the taut lines that had temporarily twisted and deformed his face were supplanted by that benign, sapless, supercilious expression habitual to it. The crisis had passed. Jim had come back from hell and returned to being a mummy.

We let him lie there for another five minutes, then placed him back on the bed. Anne-Marie lifted him with an amazing strength that belied her frailty. We removed his shoes and loosened his belt. In a few minutes he had crawled about into a fetal position, his feet pulled up underneath him, he hands clutching his thighs. I thought that it was perhaps time for me to leave.

"Stay", Anne-Marie cajoled, "Listen to some music."

I stayed on a little longer. It no longer seemed appropriate to give her advice. We made idle conversation for another hour, until one could sense the winter dawn coming up over the Montagne St. Genevieve.

Before I left, following the ritual that had developed between us , we exchanged kisses.

"I could drag you off with me ", I said.

"Well", she stalled, "I'd better stay here with Jim. He might need me."

As I walked out of the door, Anne-Marie was back on the bed, leaning over Jim , tenderly hugging him, kissing him, stroking his hair.

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