I was in a cab screeeaaaamming down 7th Ave, the Nigerian cabbie blowing by skyscrapers and long blocks of Manhattan, the globally-warmed wind streaming thru my back seat window as the Big Apple passed by, circa December Twenty Ought Six. The fresh air and adrenaline were waking me after a flight from Pittsburgh on a late Sunday night. I’d enjoyed fast cab rides in NYC before, but man, this mofo was racing to beat the Flats, talking on his cellular while the transmitter coughed out Two customers at Penn Central!, the radio blaring world rap. I sat back and enjoyed a rocket ride through the island of blurred hi-rises, tossed sideways as the cabbie slalomed through still busy traffic.
My hotel was in the deep dark vortex of the Wall Street district, and I was there to meet an extraordinary and lovely colleague on an investment research project. After checking in, I learned there were few restaurants still open, the entire south island emptying out on Fridays for the weekend. I walked to the Fulton Street market, chilled by the night air on the waterfront, only to find the last eatery closing; luckily the maitre d pointed me to the Paris Café, just down the street on South. As I ducked into the Paris, a worn brick joint settled into a corner in a warehouse district since 1873, I saw a plaque listing Gertrude Stein, Jack Reed, Teddy Roosevelt and others who had bellied to the bar. Funky place. The barman pulled a Guinness and served a sesame-crusted tuna dish, which I murdered, and the hot fare capped the night. I sludged back to the hotel and slept hard.
We had a break in the work schedule the next day, so I hoofed it over to the World Trade Center construction site. It’s so colossal, that gaping hole, and it’s all still a little overwhelming, and I found myself drawn to the tranquil park along the Hudson River just a couple blocks away. Finding a bench, I stared at the sun setting on the river, not far from the Statute of Liberty out on the harbor, the tranquility of the sky and orange clouds and the rippling currents of the river a contrast to the catastrophe still within a sightline.
I was booked on a red-eye to Brussels and eventually Paris after our business the next day and I kept thinking about that statute, a gift from France, standing for liberty and escape from oppression, welcoming millions to these shores. My great ancestor General Mad Anthony Wayne, a brigadier general under Washington (and another trouble-maker in the family), fought side-by-side with General Lafayette in the revolution. They fought their last time together at Yorktown, the French fleet having sealed escape and dooming Cornwallis.
And as I sat there I had a hunch that the workers in those looming WTC twin towers must have had a flawless view of the statute, and I can imagine it a highlight of their working day. Then came the disaster and the incomprehensible paranoid miasma that followed the buildup to the wars and our “cakewalk” into Iraq. Then the absurd attacks on the French (freedom fries) and the Dixie Chicks and anybody else with half a fucking brain who questioned the wisdom of the war or America’s quick-draw Caudillo from Crawford. The short-lived international sympathy-fest for the Americans came to a quick end.
Just a few days before, I had been on a business trip to Washington and had the pleasure of spending some time with one of my best friend’s son and his wife and kid, in a neighborhood south of the capital. I knew Wright’s dad when we both lived in my hometown of Augusta, Georgia. Billy Bryan, who went 6’6″, was a reporter in the early 70s covering civil rights, local corruption scandals and a burgeoning anti-war rebellion of long-haired kudzu rabble-rousers that included moi. He covered our rallies and demos, and joined in early southern environmental causes and campaigns to kick the Maddox-Wallace Democrats out to pasture.
Billy and Patricia, his lovely wife, and a sardonic Southern intellectual, hid me out when I was in trouble back then in their charming house in Augusta, a sanctuary surrounded by pines and azaleas and a white picket fence, tucked safely away up on the hill, originally the old money part of town. My runaway teenaged girlfriend and I used to baby-sit young Wright at the time, pleasant evenings listening to Billy and Pat’s awesome record collection, new south artists like JJ Cale and Jesse Winchester and blues and folks musicians on compilations from the Smithsonian. After I left Georgia, Billy and Pat moved to the Keys, buying a fixer-upper conch house, and later, after divorce, he re-settled in Atlanta.
Billy died suddenly last year after the holidays, a blow. He was like a big brother. He was 65 and had just retired from the book-selling business, and he and I had been talking about doing a writing project together. I was stunned by the news, and it was Wright who called me after finding my message to pick up the freakin’ phone and call me on Billy’s answering machine, the machine half-buried by books, photographs, conservation magazines, scraps of newspaper articles, and other mementos of a life of words and pictures, in that musty cluttered house on Peachtree.
Wright and his wife and I laughed over dinner about big Bill and his awkward ways. Billy’s face had been disfigured when he was young due to a gas explosion, though it had less effect on his outgoing ways than I would have figured. I asked again about the Bryan family, which included a Georgia U.S. Senator and governor and Atlanta Mayor. Billy’s father William Wright Bryan had been editor of the Atlanta Journal when it was a beacon for civil rights in the south, and later the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I remembered listening to the family’s ancient radio wires of Billy’s dad from WWII, recorded after William Sr. flew in a military plane carrying the first wave of paratroopers who jumped behind the lines at Normandy. Bryan reported on the air and sea invasion from London just after Churchill and Ike’s official radio broadcast to the allies. He later rode with the Free French as they tooled into Paris, missing a shot at the first radio broadcast from the liberation when another reporter beat him to it. After dinner, I bid goodnight and after the weekend was in New York.
So anyway, back in Gotham, that late Tuesday, I boarded a jumbo jet to Europe, having taken a sleeping pill with hopes of rest. Three Belgian women staked out and jumped into empty middle seats, evidently getting to sleep early and wisely while I fuddled with magazines and books and my laptop and the funky dinner serving of wet worm spooge and cardboard at midnight and the 3 AM movie (The DiVinci Code), catching glimpses of Tom Hanks and Amelie running through the Louvre.
It all seemed to come down to this, those last few days of the year: Paris was calling. I was looking forward to eventually seeing the City of Lights and the Left Bank, my first trip. I nodded off finally in my window seat, waking around five AM to search the horizon, straining to see the lights of Paris, or the light from Europe. Maybe it was just the sun-rising somewhere far off to the east, perhaps as far off as the deserts of the Euphrates where buzz-cut teen soldiers from Allentown and El Paso and Americus were bunkered down in a sad, pointless war, but I swore I could see something off the coast. I swore I could see the winter lights of Paris and the Champs d’Elysees. And then I’d nod off again, the black ocean far below, sometimes dreaming about a girl back in the Burgh, a sweet girl from a second-generation Italian family, who signed off email messages with a meow, making me feel lightheaded, my latest muse.
The plane landed at 7, the daybreak taking its time, the girls in the middle well-rested as they woke up, hair mussed but ready to go. I was a wreck but managed to find a train into Brussels Central Gare, then a cab to my hotel just south of city core, whence I crashed. I was staying in a neighborhood off Avenue Louise, a pleasant tree-lined promenade near the meeting place. My room was on the top floor right next to the sauna, a great place to land given the mix of jet lag and alcohol abuse while there.
Later that day, I hopped a trolley and got in a great walk that first afternoon past the statutes of King Leopold I, the market and squares of the old town, past 11th century baroque palaces and ancient temples at the Grand Place. Served in booths on the cobblestone streets of the cold alleys–fresh hot waffles w/whipped cream melt in mouth, with hot mulled cider, mmmmmm. The cappuccino at the internet café close to the hotel was better than anything I found later in Paris, coffee to die for.
I enjoyed the two days of international union meetings which included progressive activists from four continents and people connected to the Euro government and OECD. The Euro unions are so sophisticated, and it was a struggle to keep up with the headphones and translators in my sleep-deprived state. It was gratifying to see pension investment activism spread around the globe, a field of play I had played a small part cheerleading.
We Americanos found ourselves apologizing for a lot of things this trip, starting with the crack dealing mega-hedge funds from Wall Street invading Europe. Then there’s the ascension of Paul Wolfowitz, the failed neo-con war planner, to head dog of the World Bank. As if spreading interminable wars and ghastly TV shows (including a French-dubbed marathon of La Petite Maison sur la Prairie, playing on my hotel tube) weren’t bad enough.
After the meetings ended Friday, I took the TGV train to Paris, joining many tired commuters in the jammed coaches. The sleek train whistled past green fields and farms, jet streamers crisscrossing the sky like a tic-tac-toe design (my younger daughter used to call them “skyscrapers”). I was in Paris within an hour and a half and with the help of a Parisian-based advisor to the OECD (from the Brussels meeting), I found the correct metro lines to my inn near the Arc, a manse allegedly once owned by Napolean III. I unpacked and rested for a second, and then, free man in paris playing in my head, I checked out the Champs that night, past the Arc, bars and bistros packed, everyone friendly, the grand boulevard indeed lit with Christmas/ holiday lights all the way to the Concorde.
As I set off the next morning it was like walking through postcards, the winter sky grey and rainy, umbrellas everywhere, the buildings ancient and the squares grande, cafes and cobblestone streets shiny reflecting the lights of the city. Walking toward the Eiffel Tower, I crossed the bridge over the Seine in the pouring rain, the tower awesome. A highlight was the annual farmers’ and wine-growers market/faire on the large fields, every province represented , the lubricated and giddy young booth handlers passing out cups of wine, cheese, grilled beef and sausage and specialties, euro-beat playing on a loudspeaker while a black kid break-danced on a stage. Even though it was drizzling and downright chilly, the grounds were filled with tipsy locals and fellow travelers celebrating the holidays, and after visiting a dozen provinces, I was feeling no pain.
I was too tired to fully enjoy the Latin Quarter, which I walked to after a metro to Montparnasse, but I was warmed by the crowds of Saturday night and I couldn’t help but think about the Left Bank of the 30s and 40s, and the era of the committed writer, or ecrevain engage, as coined by Sartre. In 1932, as reminded by Lottman’s Left Bank, the activist writers of the Left Bank, rallied by Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse and including Malraux, Nizan, Gide, and even the surly Surrealists led by Breton, joined with figures such as Sinclair, Shaw, Einstein, Wells, Dos Passos, Russell, Gorki came together for the International Writers Congress, an event 5,000 strong. They all came together in a front unique (popular front) to stand against war, fascism and Hitler. I checked out dusty bookstores and a swank retro 60s gallery and eventually stumbled into a cozy restaurant and knocked down the nippy dampness of the Seine with a burgundy and good dinner, imagining Hemingway walking the same streets on his way to a bar or the races.
While in town, I cabbed to the Trocadero to have coffee and drinks with a progressive financier of windmills and cool energy projects. I had corresponded with him through a neuvo-lefty blog, and when we split I had high hopes of new wind deals in North American, even in Pennsylvania.
I was treated with kindness and respect in Europe, and I let it be known, when my views were asked, that I was just as angry as they at the bozos in charge of the White House. You can’t walk Paris without running into statues of George Washington and avenues named after Franklin Roosevelt and the founders, so it’s clear that there has always been a reservoir of love for Americans, if an intolerance for our stupid governments. Forgive the cliché, but after taking in the history, architecture, art, food and wine, what inspires is the protection of public space, the ease of transit, the surge of clean energy, a more visible role of working people in society and, especially, the camaraderie on the Continent. It was sad to leave.
After arriving home and crashing, finally down from a cold, I saw on the TV that James Brown had died. While in my early teens, my mom worked for his radio station on that same hill in my home town of Augusta. The station was hidden away in the dark basement of the famous old Bon Aire Hotel on Walton Way, a once elegant (but now run down) hotel from the turn of the century that had been converted into a senior citizen residence. The grounds of the Bon Aire were sprawling, surrounded by luscious, huge magnolias. I used to watch Brown’s entourage come through, him stepping out of a purple Cad, and learned later he bought that particular station to piss off the regulars from the hill (which worked).
When I was in the tenth grade, a buddy and I attended (me one of three young whiteys) a concert at the old Bell Auditorium. The show started and big Macio Parker, a huge sax hanging on his neck, steered The Flame, the twenty-five players and singers strung across the stage in perfect rhythm. And then, of course, came The Man traversing the entire stage on that awesome one leg swagger-dance. At the end of the night the well-liquored house, once hysterical and dressed to the nines, left the Auditorium on the ragged side, shoes and bras and cumber buns and bottles scattered on the large floor, a man or woman passed out somewhere in the large building. JB was always in trouble years later, jailed for tossing wives around the house and other misdeeds. In a way, James Brown was more French than American, like Josephine Baker and maybe the Dixie Chicks. One of his wives, when stopped by police for unpaid speeding tickets, tried to beat the rap by claiming diplomatic immunity. She claimed she was married to the Ambassador of Soul. That’s so French.
Anyway, after screwing up the courage to do Christmas shopping and, having surviving the Bataan death march through the malls (fa la la la la!), I was finally able to get some rest on Christmas eve.
On that night, instead of dreaming of Santa, I dreamed I was on the red-eye again, waking at 5 AM to Belgian beauties doing the backstroke in their sleep in a flying hot tub of warm creamy expresso, Tom and Amelie desperately escaping down the halls of the Louvre from a maniacal cabbie, my cute sleeping meow friend purring in the next seat, dreaming of catnip, and out the window I could see it again, the flickering but steady lights of Paris and the ever-warming radiance of Europe, the giant aero-liner streaking across the stratosphere carrying me safely above the cushion of clouds and the ocean abyss, as safe as sleeping in the arms of that welcoming belle femme from Paris standing resolute and ever so graceful”even when she is out of favor”and still clinging fast to that blazing torch, a cherished fire from a shared dreamscape pour l’éternelle danse de l’amour et de la vie, held high above the calming waters of the Hudson.
© 2007 t.w.croft
T.W. Croft has authored memoir-ish essays, published and/or posted on various and nefarious magazines, journals and web sites. He has also commissioned books, chapters, articles and essays on regional economy and responsible investments. Write to Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.