George Vance is one of my oldest friends, but he is not appearing on Scene of the Crime because of nepotism. He is also a damn fine poet and world traveler. Those of you who follow my occasional forays into memoir might already know George as the guy who coined the phrase “Moose Lodge stage of development” in a post on Vienna then and now, and as the one whose mother, in “The Word,” busted a less than honest Ohio newspaper which had published one of my freelance pieces without payment.
George and I met in the early 1970s in Vienna, but since 1982 he has been a resident of Paris. He has also has lived in Liberia, Germany, and the French Overseas ‘Country’ of New Caledonia/Kanaky. Most recently George has been involved in experiments with word/image fusion, tags, and street art. His hybrid language & image video installation, “HEIGHTS”, was exhibited in Brussels in 2006, and he recently designed a ‘totem’ sculpture with a Kanak artist. Author of Bent Time (2006), a chapbook, his poems have appeared in Paris in Pharos and Upstairs at Duroc. He has read at numerous Paris venues including The
American Library, Wice, Paris Writer’s workshop, Live Poets, The Red Wheelbarrow, & as part of the multi-voiced performance group “Quadriphonics” (with Jennifer K. Dick, Michelle Noteboom and Barbara Beck). His poems can also be found online at the poetry blog Rewords, at Ahadada Books’ online journal Ekleksographia, and also at the online Retort Magazine.
I asked George to be a guest blogger on Scene of the Crime to talk about the city he knows so well, Paris, and how it has changed over the three decades he has resided there:
Take this street, rue Damrémont in the 18th arrondisement of Paris. Walking on it is not the same as in 1982. Yes, it’s the same width, but now it’s been refitted with a bicycle path – going the opposite direction of the car traffic – and 2-hour parking on both sides, leaving it a one-lane bottleneck at morning, noon and evening rush hours. I have to look both ways now when I cross the street, everybody is pressé, more restaurants put chairs out on the sidewalk (Paree cachet oblige), drivers do not hesitate to take their good old time parking (territorial imperative), with the resulting honk-chorus (territorial expletive); add in assorted garbage cans & debris, the knots of chatters & smokers strung all along the block in the middle of the sidewalk, plus an astounding number of baby carriages, and a poor ambling pedestrian like me finds himself compelled, against his rambling will, to be strictly goal-oriented: move or get moved. However teensy a niche I squeeze myself into, a clearly articulated Pardon! will dislodge me even from that. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed. Pardon (parr-DON!) doesn’t mean ‘excuse me’, it means ‘get the hell out of the way, andouille’ (chittlin’-stuffed sausage). It’s true, sometimes you get, ‘Pardon, Monsieur’, but exclusively from women.
Not to mention dog doo. While the number of cars has doubled in 28 years, canine ejections have decreased twofold, mainly due to the recent introduction of fines so that now you can observe elegant bourgeois ladies stooping to scoop their dear dogs’ poop, the precious 4-leggers assuming an above-it-all pose and no doubt wondering bemusedly at the behavior of their best friend, Man, (i.e., Woman). Taking a walk still takes some gingerly high-stepping, though.
Back in the early 80’s and up until 2002 this was our street. We (young French wife, Bean, and I) lived at N° 50, just across from the medical lab with its long entrance hall bedecked with Poulbot ceramic scenes of Montmartre urchins playing a dozen assorted children’s games. That was the great thing, to exit your building onto a relatively unencumbered sidewalk and peruse any number of lovingly rendered shop signs, doors, historicist ornaments, 19th century industrial-derived architectural elements, art nouveau-influenced doodads, or sometimes an outright blob of baroque manqué. Then turn into the renowned cheese shop two doors down for an Epoisse puante (stinky Epoisse). Go the other way to the wine shop to find the best wine-cheese marriage (Pouilly Fuissé if white, Côte Rotie if red). Even going to work was a pleasure, except for having to stop and put a parking ticket in the car window (the first couple of years parking was free): the cafés, the shopkeepers opening up, the galvanizing morning air, which I realized after a decade or two was just me projecting expectation of a new day in the City of Light, but it was so extant it was contagious. Today you see the expression in tourists sipping coffee, at a sidewalk café. Many have no clue what it is they’re experiencing, but their wide-eyed look says “We’ve made it, We’re HERE!”
You always took pains to say Bonjour and Comment allez-vous, Madame, Monsieur to your neighbors, which might seem to be a mere formality until the day you return from a weekend in the country and find Monsieur D from the fifth floor waiting for you at the entrance to warn you that you’ve been burgled. He’d been watching our bashed-in door since morning to keep away any other miscreants. Today your neighbors would probably indulge in a bit of discreet Schadenfreude in return for your complaints about their loud 2:00 a.m. music.
Anyway, it was good-bye to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Jessye Norman) and about 50 other choice CD’s, back when people bought such things, the only items stolen except for a bag to carry them in. The police said we’d probably find them at the St. Ouen flea market, cheap.
A short shot of Paris lointain (old-time) has to wind up with touch of mystery, considering this is a guest gig on a thriller blog. Bean and I regularly patronized a vest-pocket restaurant; we’ll call it the Mad Lamb. They offered a choice of 6 different kirs, a short menu of always reliable escalope Normande, magret de canard, boeuf Bourgignon and the like, plus a dessert of tarte Tatin, profiterole or crème brûlé, all cooked and served with the skill and panache that gay Paree restaurateurs are known for. We invariably had a bottle of Graves with the meal, and walking home afterward always felt healthy and light and always remarked on the truism that red wine, especially Bordeaux wine, and for us especially Graves, is good for you. We testified to that by never leaving a drop in glass or bottle.
But one day we discovered that that the Mad Lamb had closed. It remained so for weeks, then months. No one in the neighborhood had any idea what had happened. The story slowly came out that one of the partners had disappeared. When the police finally got around to opening an investigation they went by to check out the premises, and there it was – still-fresh concrete over a hole in the cellar floor. As the French would say, “more classic, you die.”
I just made a quick query among old residents. Still a mystery. Nobody ever found out the end of the story. Not even who killed who. Bean and I still drink Graves pretty often, though. Guess it’s healthier for the consumers than for the purveyors.
The premises are now occupied by a sushi take-out restaurant.
A place to lone it
cop a bite
not embrace the swarm
of seated patrons at their plates
who look up
look out through window lace
staring back from someone else’s face
between the mirrored wall and the pastry case
a solitude of sorts
bunched bar-fly sportsmen
and their cohorts
grandma and grandchild
reflected in the glass
between thoughtswell and sidewise draft
against the present’s moorings
casting fore, eschewing aft
prone to heel and list
becoming from surrounding shorings
thriving in a trammelling midst