Paris While Black
J. asked me to write about what it’s like being me, a black American, in various places around the world. So I’ll speak for myself. Let me preface this series with an arrogant presumption that I think is likely to be more true than not.
What millions of black Americans desire from black politics, I already have. I am at least one mountaintop further than the one MLK told us he may not reach. I am the fulfillment of my parents’ dreams and the fortunate son. I have become the West Coast patriarch of my extended family and all of that is done. I have the time, the desire and the capacity to tell my story because it is a story Americans want and need to hear. It is the story of what it is like to be a free, independent black man in America, and abroad. I don’t think my story is particularly dramatic or necessarily unique, but it is sufficiently unusual that it is unlike anything well understood in mainstream or popular culture.
Sometimes I think I ought to tell people that I’m the nephew of Morgan Freeman. It would save me a lot of explaining. Occasionally I will attend some public function and people act as if I ought to be a famous somebody, you know, as if this charming, well-spoken black man must be somebody. In actuality, my fame is limited to my writing, and that’s about all I’ve ever done fully of my own inventive accord. I’ve spewn paragraphs into the void of the interwebz and without having spent more than $500 in advertising over 30 years, I have you as my audience. I have my occasional invitations and very kind words of appreciation as well as heartfelt, coherent criticism. This is sufficient. I am driven by some ineffable force to perceive, consider and articulate. I am a writer. It is deeply who I am. I do not bemoan my fate. Sometimes I wish that I could get paid for the amount of good my writing can do to the world of English readers. Maybe the amount I get is all that is. Yet what I do in my profession as a data engineer basically covers the amount my writing gets annually in less than two weeks. But other than here, I don’t compare those two aspects of myself. I am a data engineer and that is a kind of writing that manifests itself in a different medium to a different audience. So let’s go to Paris.
Sometimes, when I think of Paris, I believe I’ve had two trips. Both of them took place back in my 30s but I truly cannot remember. I have many different impressions. I will say there were two trips but I will condense them into one because of the number of different impressions I got and if they were two I could not precisely associate each with a particular trip. Either way, I probably looked like this single roguish dude, which was me in 1992.
In both trips I stayed in the 15th near Montparnasse. One in a small modern and forgettable apartment and the second in a small place on Edgar Quinet which looked as if it should stink to high heavens. I was fascinated by the French telephone system which appeared to have some public chat function. I was jealous of the capability and my first and only memory of that first hotel was the lobby in which I first encountered this special phone.
The day I arrived in Paris, I had instructions from my cousin Niles to come to a certain bus station where he would come and pick me up. He told me to watch my pockets because at that particular place, where tourists were rampant, so were those who preyed upon them. I had already lived in NYC so I already knew to keep my wallet in my front left pocket which would leave any potential pickpocket vulnerable to my quick right cross. I also knew that Americans could be quickly identified in Europe by wearing white sneakers, which nobody did over there unless they were actually playing tennis.
Niles arrived and after having converted my dollars to francs and keeping the exchange rate in mind, we hopped on a bus and took a long ride into the middle of the city. While I’m no slouch, Niles is an extraordinarily good looking dude. As I work to describe his face, there are no current movie stars who look quite like him. The closest would be Gary Dourdan. Niles was a sprinter in highschool and has the build typical of somebody who runs the 400 today. He is about 6 foot 3, lean and has a megawatt smile. He’s always well-dressed. The two of us tend to be a stylish duo. But he’s got the look women want to know better. While we stood in the middle of the bus it was him who got all the attention. I remember him specifically telling me that Parisians tend to be short and they are amazed at his looks and stature. “I’m a giant here.”
That evening which must have been the first and the last of ours together, we started somewhere near Les Halles. There was an American burger joint which probably had some cornball name like The American Burger Joint. They had Budweiser and very mediocre cheeseburgers. The both of us were short on cash, and that was all we could do. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Niles’ French is much better than mine, after all his was the side of the family that spent time in West Africa with the Peace Corps. He married Natalie who also lived in the 15th but they were on the outs. Our destination for the evening was a hiphop fashion show. This was right up Niles’ alley.
There’s a lot to say about my cousin that has little to do with him so much as the impression he makes on people. He has grown into the ways that people expect him to behave - which is to say it’s easy for him to walk in the shoes people expect him to fit. So he’s a salesman and a playboy. He is this without being fundamentally a douchebag, at least I can say that he’s never been dishonest with me. That doesn’t change the fact that when it comes to the ladies, he doesn’t have to work hard at all. We sat through the fashion show with every intent of getting lucky.
I already had some experience with French Rap. Like most everyone in the know in the States, I liked producer Jimmy Jay and his groups. Premier among them was Lucien of the Native Tongues, Menelik and of course MC Solaar. I can’t imagine Solaar wasn’t spinning that night but most of it was rapped in English; I was completely in my element as various model babes strolled the runway. When the show ended, we did our best to work the room. I was fairly shocked when these girls who looked very much like those typical in hiphop videos started speaking French. It was at once perfectly natural but unexpected. For some reason, Niles whose lead I was following like some bumbling beta quickly dismissed the first set. He ultimately set his sights on one.
She was tall, easily 6-8 years our junior and had a miraculous complexion. She was as dark as Grace Jones and her skin positively radiated magic. She spoke English with an accent I could not place exactly; she told us she was originally from the Caribbean and left at the age of 12 and began modeling in Amsterdam. Niles kept chatting her up as we walked with her back to the Metro. It is at this moment that the memory is drilled into my mind. We’re standing on the far end of the platform and clearly Niles has decided that he has done enough talking. He gives me a casual look that implied a wink and propositioned her right there with an offer to show his giant proof that it would be worth her while. I’m sure that I was more shocked than she was, as there was little doubt in my mind that young models like the one before us were engaged in dicey affairs, voluntarily or not. I was not prepared for the implications of this gambit. She hesitated for a moment and various calculations were made. I’m sure that the watch I was wearing did not indicate one measure of acceptability, nor did I possess some level of hunger she might find satisfactory for the three of us to do the nasty. I backed off. Niles finessed the situation and we simply saw her onto her train as if we were bodyguards paid to keep wolves away rather than sheepdogs with more than little taste for lamb ourselves.
I didn’t know what I was looking for that night. Something other than chaste boredom but not quite such a leap into the unknown. I never could talk my way into a woman’s pants in 15 minutes flat. For Niles this was familiar territory. I was thinking it. He was working it. And yes he had been to Amsterdam before. End of memory.
The next day I found myself walking and walking. From Montparnasse I proceeded down the tree lined median towards L’Observatoire and the long park crossing Rue Michelet towards the Jardin du Luxembourg. I finally came to rest at a bench in a quiet corner of the park. I wished I had a camera. The rest of the city had disappeared almost suddenly and the bustle of Montparnasse was far behind me. I didn’t have any guidance, but I’m the kind who can walk 10 miles without thinking much of it, and I still was on the Left Bank so I couldn’t be that lost. I was seated within earshot of basketball courts. I could hear the familiar rhythms of the ball, of the young rough voices, of the stutter steps on concrete. This was the first time I felt a little self-conscious. I wanted to go and look. I wanted to compare the game to the American game. Already the era of Charles Barkley was over and the three point shooters were starting to take the glory from those who drove down the lanes. Basketball? Did I really come to Paris to watch basketball? Hells no. End of memory.
The days I spent on the Rive Droit were remarkable for several reasons. Oddly enough I had been to this capitol before I had seen my own. I wouldn’t spend any time in Washington DC’s Mall until 2008 on a family vacation. So my time on the Champs was breathtaking. I must have stared at the magnificence of the Luxor Obelisk for a good 20 minutes. I kept thinking this was something African that had no equivalent in America, as if it were something we were incapable of doing. Only the French could manage appropriating and venerating simultaneously, so it seemed at the moment. I was drawn in that strange way to walking directly down the middle of whatever gave me a sense of massive symmetry in the world around me. This is numinous architecture - it doesn’t belittle me, it expands me and amplifies my presence as if the colonnades to my left and right are the walls of water in the Red Sea. They are only magnificent because I am Moses and as I pass, they will collapse into insignificance and crush those behind me.
The Place Vendome was empty. It must have been a Sunday. The square was abandoned without an heiress in sight. I immediately got the sense that I was invading, that there was nothing here that anyone who frequents its cobbles might say concerns any of my business. To be here on a Sunday was to be a gawker, a tourist who didn’t even know when to come and be properly insulted by arrogant rich Frenchies. The silence of the place creeped me out completely. I had that overwhelming sense that someone of ill intent was surveilling me, daring me to peek my nose into the window of Louis Vuitton, because it simply must be his flagship store. Never in Beverly Hills or any other snooty place have I ever felt as uncomfortably intimidated. At the same time, here I was. If they wanted to kill me, it would have already been done. It was James Bond logic, I know. Don’t the evil always spare your life for the chance to monologue? Well, not James Earl Ray. Not John Wilkes Booth. I looked to the roofs. Empty mansard roofs. I knew what they were. I learned about La Rue de la Paix in 9th grade. Nobody had a rifle. OK. Been here. Done that. Let’s get the fuck out of here. End of memory.
As I sat in the eastern shadow of the Eiffel Tower, I was tired. I was sad and lonely. I knew no one here. I wanted, but I didn’t want to go up the elevator. I could afford it, but I knew I would feel strangely claustrophobic in that space. I hate standing in lines. I hate going where I’m told. I hate being in the crowd. I preferred to sit alone and watch people walk back and forth.
I wanted to sit on the big lawns to the south and have a picnic with someone special. Where were all Paris’ legendarily beautiful women? No one struck me like the hiphop model. I was frustrated and mad at myself for being frustrated. This is just like fucking New York, except somebody’s always on strike. I ended up crossing the Seine and wound up in a marble monumental hell. It was just the opposite of walking up the Champs, its symmetry invaded my senses and made me feel small and puny for not being among the legions of war heroes who died for something or other the French found fabulous at the time. I was exhausted by it all. End of memory.
In more recent times I found myself reading about the life of Baruch Spinoza. At some point he was down and out in Paris, feeling completely apart from the crowds and alienated from the simplistic ways they were deluded into believing in their own salvation. I imagine us sitting in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower grumbling to ourselves, oblivious to each other’s existence and not caring.
At some point I went back to the 15th, the neighborhood I knew best. I ended up having dinner with my cousin’s estranged wife chez lui and we sat back to watch the French subtitled version of The Doors biopic. I remember she hadn’t seen me in a while and began singing a children’s song about my ‘barbichette’. This seemed entirely hilarious to her. I tried not to be annoyed by this - but an hour into the film we were laughing at different parts. I realized that there was a fairly cheesy job done of the translation and pretty much everything that made the film subtly good was lost in the subtitles. But at least I was with English speaking family, not many people can say so.
Another day and night comprise my memories of Paris. The day I spent finding a place of symmetry to walk and wound up at La Defense. For the most part it worked, but it was also a weekend and the place was mostly abandoned. Nevertheless, I felt quite comfortable among the logos many of which I had some actual experience with. I only remember IBM for which I’ve held in a bit of contempt, but not when compared to Oracle. Groupe Bull had to be there. Then as now I could not imagine the French would give as much attention to computer languages as we Americans do, given their love for their own mother tongue. So I must have felt rather superior in that regard.
My own facility with the French language was adequate. I imagine that a week of two of forced immersion would have me decently competent. What I have since learned is that when it comes to speaking any language, what native speakers appreciate most is not fluency but an appropriate accent. I learned that no matter what I do, I sound quite West African, but definitely upscale Parisian West African. I was able to prove this clearly to myself when I went out to dine back in the 15th at one of the nicer brasseries on Montparnasse. I started ordering in French and it went well enough until my waiter started speaking 100 words per minute. I defaulted and he gave me a decent look, which was somewhere between “OK you gave it a good try, nice going” and “You could have just started off in English, I’m not stupid, you know”.
I was in a good mood thinking I might get into some more adventure. Wine does this. I end up strolling through a dark alley around the corner from my hotel room. Some French equivalent of Dudley Moore playing Arthur Bach ambles up the other way, drunk, silly, horny. He asks me if I like his car. It’s a black 7 series BMW parked right where I’m walking. I respond “C’est cool’. Apparently this is all it takes. It takes me a minute to realize he’s promising me candy if I hop in and go for a ride with him, because I’m thinking he’s a chauffeur or a valet trying to show off. Then it hits me. It’s one of those moments where you’re so shocked that you run out of words to respond. I felt both sorry for him and a bit angry and a bit ‘Eww’. But before this very moment, I never really associated this encounter with ours with the hiphop model. So there’s that. End of memory.
My most enjoyable moments were the time I spent at the Grand Palais but I simply could not find any words to describe the feeling I had about the place. The exhibit was something of a marvel, but I fell in love with the building. Odd how the Guggenheim left me disappointed, as did Westminster Abbey whereas the Grand Palais was completely unanticipated. I did a lot of lonely walking around and by Left Bank Cafes, across Pont Neuf, near L’Opera and in front of Notre Dame. I watched strikers ply their avocation. I remember hopping a turnstile in the Metro when caught in a sandwich of scofflaws. I remember something being ‘Interdit’ in every Metro station but can’t recall what that prohibited item or behavior was.
On the whole, I enjoyed Paris but wish I had someone like my cousin’s wife or I don’t know maybe my new acquaintance Mr. Chatterton-Williams to hang out with everywhere I went. I really go all out when someone wants to come and hang out with me in LA. I’m a walking encyclopedia of the place - I consider myself a fairly energetic cultural geographer. I’ve needed and never had that in London, Zurich or Milan.
The odd thing is that most of my young life I never quite understood the appeal of ‘exotic places’. All people seemed to want is some romantic fantasy, where the place itself intoxicates you into jumping out of your skivvies. That always seemed to me to be an intellectual shortcoming. Why? Because a cultural geographer is necessary, otherwise you just get the subtitles. I could do that in my own boudoir.
The last time I had a fundamental and pressing urge to experience life in other places was just around the turn of the century. I was coming up on my five year anniversary after which my company offered a six week paid sabbatical. That was a great company. My friend Jose offered that we could go together and do Hong Kong, KL, Singapore, Bangkok & Tokyo. That would have been awesome. I got laid off and all of my options were under water. Just my luck.
But who knows?