Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

J.S. Bankston has arrrived.

— Tuesday, February 28: Loving the Alien—

By James Scott Bankston

I had jazz playing on my headset and began to really get excited when I saw the clouds part and noticed the buildings and roads and cars of Paris beneath us. The Pilot announced we’d be deboarding by means of stairs–I looked back at J&N and we exchanged jubilant smiles and “thumbs-up”–we could walk down onto the tarmac like old-time celebs, with the paparazzi snapping our pictures. We landed, then taxied all over Charles De Gaulle for what seemed like thirty minutes. I pointed at a squat, grey hotel nearby and mouthed to James, “Look! It’s the Paris Hilton!,” but he didn’t understand me.

There were no photographers waiting for us when we stepped off the plane. I didn’t even get to kiss the ground like the Pope. Instead, we were led to a commuter bus.

It was cold and rainy out, and snowflakes the size of silver dollars had started falling. For some perverted reason, James hoped we’d have cold, snowy, inclement weather the entire time we were in Paris. He had brought along, just for that purpose, the most hideous jacket I have ever seen–a green Army surplus overcoat he’s taken all over the world for the last fifteen years. It has maybe one button left and every edge on it is frayed. It looks like something a homeless person would wear. He believes if he wears it he’ll scare off Gypsies and panhandlers.

I said, “You do realize, don’t you, that you won’t be able to get into any nice restaurants wearing that coat?,” and he said, “That’s okay.”

We were driven to a terminal, and walked up a wet flight of stairs to the Immigration gate. Between the entrance to the Immigration area to the inspection kiosks was a substantial area roped off with a zig-zag of elastic bands affixed to metal poles–you walked in, turned left, then right, then left, and on and on and on. Normally this configuration was set up to handle large crowds, but since there were so few of us we looked peculiar running through it. Our movements became almost balletic; overhead we must have looked like ping-pong balls released from the ceiling, hitting the floor, bouncing back up to the ceiling, then hitting the floor again, and on and on. Or we may have just looked like an old “Pong” video game. The silly grace and general pointlessness of our movements made everyone in the line laugh, and I called out to a woman behind me, “I wonder if I’m gonna get a food pellet when I get to the end of this maze!”

I was waved through Immigration without getting even so much as a stamp on my passport, then we went to the baggage carousel to get one of J&N’s bags. After that we went off in search of the RER commuter train station so we could get into town. I took the lead on this one, since James seems to have trouble processing the information on signs, TV monitors, and maps. It was exhilarating to hear all those foreign voices, to be surrounded by stylishly-dressed men and women, to see heavily-armed military police everywhere. (This last sight made the most normal location seem like a setting for imminent danger.)

We got to the station. I bought Metro tickets for the week. J&N only bought them for the day. (Actually, since J&N used the Metro so often during the trip, they were the ones who should’ve bought week-long passes. I hardly used the Metro at all.)

We encountered something we were to see many more times: a place with an escalator that went up but only a staircase going down. A small woman stood at the top of the stairs with an enormous bag, looking around frantically for help.

I felt uncharacteristically charitable, and with broken French, asked if she’d like me to lug the thing downstairs for her, then did so, to the great shock of James and Nyssa.

Our train arrived soon afterwards. At the first stop two African men got on board and began talking very loudly in French all the way into Paris. Some guy came out of the back of the train and began playing easy listening classics from the ‘70s on an accordion, then passed the hat, and finding tips skimpy, moved on into the next car.

I was surveying the passing scenery outside my window with great interest–the old factories, the endless walls of graffiti, the faux quaint working-class cottages built next to the rails, the high-rise housing projects with laundry and other crap hanging from each balcony, from which the riots had sprung not six month ago. James pointed out the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur off in the distance–it was a lot larger than I’d pictured it.

Before I knew it we were at the Notre-Dame Metro station, and J&N led me through the maze up to the surface, and there she was just a few hundred yards away–Notre-Dame Cathedral. I don’t remember exactly how I felt, but I do know I was so exhausted that day that I was a lot less excited than I would’ve been otherwise. Mainly I just wanted to get a shower.

We walked through the drizzle to my hotel, the Esmeralda, which is just a few feet away from the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and two blocks from Notre-Dame. J&N went off to their hotel, and we agreed to meet in an hour in front of the cathedral.

I walked into the hotel and identified myself. The desk clerk had me down as reserved for two days–I said that no, I had reserved for seven. He gave me a large skeleton key and told me to go to Room #5, on the stairs.

The room was not off a landing, but was in fact on the stairs–you walked into it directly from the middle of the staircase. I’d heard the locks were tricky in this place, but it took me over five minutes of twisting and rattling to get the key to open the lock. The staircase was filled with the overpowering stench of furniture polish. I knew this shit would get really old really fast.

Figuring to save money, I’d asked for the smallest room they had, with a bathroom down the hall. But I wasn’t ready for what I was getting. My room was tiny and dark, with battered paneling and wallpaper of an over-powering pattern. There was a beaten-up wardrobe whose doors hung open, a tiny sink, a shelf over the low doorway, and window that looked onto a light well cluttered with an unfinished construction project. There was a light over the sink, a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling, and a fragile reading lamp on an over-sized bedside table, one side of which intruded into head of the narrow bed. The room was only as long as the tiny bed, and was overall not much bigger than a jail cell. The floor was covered with a threadbare carpet, and a board sunk under my right foot as I leaned forward to put down my bag.

This was not what I wanted. Not at all.

But first things first–I’d not showered in a day and was feeling greasy and nasty. I found a maid and asked where the bathroom was and she said it was one floor up. I gathered all I needed to shower and change, then went upstairs. In one room was a small sink and a toilet that took me awhile to flush.

The shower was located in a room off the maid’s closet. It was midday then, so the maids were busy cleaning–it took some doing for me to get them to leave so I could undress and shower. I set my towels and things on top of a trunk next to bags filled with the maids’s daily shopping.

I knew I couldn’t stay in this place. I was so depressed and upset I wanted to cry or something. (This feeling was no doubt exacerbated by my exhaustion.) The hotel was a dump, and my entire trip would be ruined and all that money wasted if I had to stay any longer. But could I get out of it? I’d told the guy at the desk I was staying for seven nights. Would he hold me to that? He had my credit card number from when I reserved back in the States. Would I be able to find an affordable hotel in this neighborhood? Would I have a bed for the night? I knew of several hotels in the area, sure, but did they have any vacancies?

It was almost time to meet J&N. By the time I got to the church they were nowhere to be seen. I was beside myself. I had to get this hotel thing resolved immediately before I did any sight-seeing. Where the hell were they? Finally I went inside the Cathedral, a place of beauty, history, and architectural significance I’d read about all my life, but I was so upset I didn’t notice any of it, because I was so busy scanning the crowd for J&N. I made a quick circuit of the building, then went back outside, where they finally turned up and I told them the situation.

James suggested I stay at his hotel, the Hotel Abbatial St. Germain, but I’d blown off that idea weeks ago–it cost more than I wanted to pay. I said I’d go off and search for some of the other hotels I knew of in the neighborhood, and we made tentative plans to meet somewhere, and off I flew in a frenzy.

For some reason I couldn’t find the addresses of those other hotels. I saw the Abbatial, and decided to pop in there after all, check their availability, and maybe look at their phone book. I had a confusing conversation with the desk clerk: she could accommodate me, yes, but I might have to switch rooms every day or so, taking a single one day, a double another, but then, no, it sounded like she could put me in one room all seven days and charge me one rate. I went to check out the room–it looked great. The clerk photo-copied my credit card just as J&N walked in, surprised to see me. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be in the same room all week, but I filled out the register, then ran out to go get my stuff from the Esmeralda.

Once there I packed quickly, went downstairs, and told the desk clerk I was going to stay with friends instead, and offered to pay for one night, since I’d already used the room. This seemed to suit the clerk fine–in fact, he acted as if that sort of thing happened all the time.

I ran back to the Abbatial and unpacked again. My room (#15) was on the first (second) floor, at the top of the stairs and right off the elevator. It had a full bath with shower and tub, two large floor-to-ceiling casement windows that looked out onto Rue Des Bernardins and the Boulevard St. Germain, a double bed, and an alcove with a desk, tiny fridge, and ceiling-hung TV. I was paying more than J&N were for their fifth (sixth) floor room with the balcony and the Pantheon view, the hair dryer hose and a side table drawer were broken and the curtains were dangerously close to the radiator, but I didn’t care–at least I was out of the Esmeralda.

That latest crisis passed, I decided to make a fresh start with Paris, and J&N and I ventured forth and made our way back to Notre-Dame.

A sign said Notre-Dame had an English-speaking priest that was hearing Confessions at that time in the Cathedral. I’d not been to Confession or Mass in ages, and the next day was Ash Wednesday. There was no one in line, so I went on in.

In Notre-Dame, as in many older churches in Paris, the confessional is a modern steel-and-glass box set up inside a lofty old side chapel. The confessional is dimly-lit and furnished like a study, though from the outside it looks a bit like a police interrogation room. At Notre-Dame there were horizontal lines of frosted glass set into the regular glass to protect the privacy of the priest and the penitent.

I had never confessed face-to-face before. The priest was a kindly, pale old Frenchman. He didn’t even give me a penance, and part of his absolution was delivered in Latin, which I joked to James “makes it count double.”

Now that I was shriven, we continued our tour. I lit a candle and prayed Fred and I would be safely reunited. (I know this sounds superstitious, but I did this in every one of the churches I visited in Paris the entire week.) I saw a group of teenaged Japanese boys in their private school blazers and gear and commented, “Oh, I didn’t know Hogwarts had a Tokyo branch!” We stopped to photograph a statue of Joan of Arc in another chapel, but the light was too poor for me to adequately capture the amusing image of both the statue and a fire extinguisher standing in a corner.

We crossed back over to the Left Bank. James photographed me sitting on a wet bench in front of Shakespeare and Company, then we went to St. Julien-le-Pauvre, the oldest church in Paris, now run by Byzantine Catholics. St. Julien is a popular venue for small concerts and I picked up flyers for a Chopin program, an evening of Black gospel music, and a tribute to the castrati. But I already know way too much about castrated men as it is–after all, I do have quite a few married friends.

We walked a few more blocks and were about to go into St. Severin church, when I was stopped by an old woman cowering just inside the gates. J&N had already gone into the church without me. The old woman explained in broken English and French that she was from “Bosnie” and asked if I could I spare any money. I gave her a handful of change and started toward the church door, then she shuffled up with a US quarter in her dirty fingers, smiling through broken teeth, saying, “This one no good....Can’t use....Euro....Euro!”

I reached back into my pocket and fished out a few more Euro coins, and she fell to her knees and began thanking me with an effusiveness that I found embarrassing, startling, confusing, and humbling. She began crying, “Bless you! God bless you!,” and kissed my hand repeatedly. Now even with my colossal ego I couldn’t handle being treated like a god on the steps of a church. In my confusion, I put my right hand on her head as if I was a priest and said, “No, not me! Bless you!” She drew her hands together into a praying position and bowed repeatedly and thanked me, and I bowed as well and withdrew into the church, just as J&N came to check on me. James explained the woman was a Gypsy and that they will resort to any tactics to get money off tourist, but he figured I needed to learn the hard way. The old woman was still thanking me and smiling when I left the church a few minutes later.

It was maybe mid-afternoon now, and Nyssa was ready to turn in for the day, so she and James headed back to the hotel. I wandered into the Abbey, a narrow-aisled, cluttered, claustrophobia-inducing English-language bookstore run by a Canadian expatriate and bought a Bruce Chatwin book (appropriately enough), briefly checked out a news stand, then wandered around some more, until I stumbled into a wide north-south street I correctly guessed was the Boulevard St. Michel. A young woman hit me up for a few Euros. (Damn! I really should have been wearing that money belt inside my sweater.) I saw one of those Art Nouveau Metro signs, but was too tired to haul out my camera and take a picture.

I browsed among the sidewalk bins of of the Gibert Jeune bookstore, which occupies several buildings that line both side of the street. It was peculiar looking at book in a setting full of cigar smoke. I went inside the store–more escalators going up, with only staircases going down. I bought a literary magazine about Emile Zola, two coffee table books on Serge Gainsbourg and a fat collection of his complete lyrics, then briefly went across the street to the Gibert Jeune scholarly lit store. I strolled past restaurants, jazz clubs, and tiny cinemas, watched the traffic along the Quai St. Michel, and finally made my long-awaited visit to Shakespeare and Company.

For whatever reason, maybe the fact I was so tired, I was unimpressed. I saw nothing particularly rare or unusual in the store–nothing I couldn’t find in a new or used English-language bookstore in Austin. I tried to climb the ladder-like stairs to the second floor, but the risers were about a foot tall, and my backpack wouldn’t fit through the stairwell, so I said to hell with it, and backed down slowly and headed for the exit.

I found an internet café staffed by an American girl and tried to check my e-mail, but was unable to get to my regular account, so I used another to e-mail Jennifer and ask her to send me Fred status reports there.

I’d not eaten since that breakfast on the plane, so I did an uncharacteristic thing–I backtracked, and went uphill towards the area of the Sorbonne. I stopped at a clean little corner café/tea room/boulangerie, and after studying the outdoor menu, went inside and ordered a croque-monsieur (ham and cheese sandwich) and a bottle of Leffe beer. The proprietor asked me to take a seat, and I shifted the bag off my back and began jotting down notes about the day.

School children were dropping in to get snacks, college students were stopping for coffee on their way home, working people were buying bread. I kept seeing puffs of smoke rolling out from my right and thought it was from an oven–it turned out to be from two laborers who were smoking at the bar and tossing the butts on the floor.

I ate and drank slowly, savoring it all. I wrote in detail about what I’d seen thus far. I finished and paid my bill accurately and without trouble. With negligible French language skills I had ordered my first meal in a French restaurant and not comported myself like a fool.

I walked down the hill to the Boulevard St. Germain, and went into the “8 a Huit,” a small grocery store across from the Abbatial, and bought a couple “Cocas” (as Cokes are called over there) and a big chocolate bar, then went up to my room, showered again (I am the only person I know who actually uses all the towels they give you in a hotel), and made a brief survey of the TV channnels. Around 10pm I listened to bells from the church across the street and the “air raid”-style police sirens as they went off every fifteen minutes or so, and fell quickly to sleep.

My sleep was sound and dreamless, though I woke for some reason at 3am. I broke open a Coca and started on the candy bar, while snapping pictures of the wet streets outside my windows. The day had started with rain and snow, then moved on to sun and warmth, sudden winds and dark clouds, more rain and snow, then more sun, and so on and so on. I’d even bought an umbrella in a souvenir shop, knocking over a display stand in the process, but never got around to using it. Not even Texas has weather that fickle. Now at 3am snow was pushing its way through the rain again.

Was Fred okay? Was he lonely now? Was he convinced I’d left him forever? I had set up pictures of him on my bedside table. I hated myself for taking this trip. I felt so selfish and just wanted to get the damn thing over with now so I could get back to him.

These fears and second thoughts nagged me every night I was in Paris, though they dissipated each morning. I later learned Fred spent our first evening apart frantically pacing around Jennifer’s house, looking for me. Then after Jennifer had gone to bed he howled mournfully most every hour on the hour until sunrise.

Back in Paris I stared at the rainy streets, then put away my camera and snacks, straightened my bedding, and slipped back into dreamless sleep.

All photos by J.S Bankston; except 'Gypsy' photo by James Delaney


At 7:37 AM, Blogger Tara said...

You are one of the best storytellers I've encountered...every mention of Fred gets me teary-eyed and I'm excited every time you discover something new -- like it's my experience too. These entries should be a novel...

At 10:54 AM, Blogger SportyChick said...

I agree. Loved it. Reading it was like being there myself for the first time. Thanks.

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your trip. I feel as if I was there and my heart aches every time you speak about Fred. Great stuff.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger Satisfied '75 said...

when is triplej back in action??

sounds like a great trip, bankston

At 1:42 PM, Blogger TripleJ said...

Thanks for the interest satisfied '75. For those who didn't know, I took a spill. Broke a few bones. Was forced to medicate and not drink. Lost weight and grew a beard.

For now, I am honored to play publisher to Bankson's prose for the next 10 or so Paris installments. Then, I expect to get back to our regular programming of bare asses, Bankston and more.

I would offer this suggestion or direction as the installments post about every other day. Bankston's got something here. I've read it - it's a good story worthy of publication beyond NJK. A smart group - many dealing in editing as a profession - read this site. Give Bankston all the frank, honest, detailed feedback you can muster. I loved to see the thoughts on this group result in the gain of a larger audience for Bankston and his beloved hound, Fred.

At 1:57 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

So, Triple J, is it a Barry Gibb beard, a Kenny Rogers, a Billy Gibbons, a Kenny Loggins, a "Syriana" George Clooney? (Good movie, BTW.)

Let no one say I don't know my audience. There's bare body parts to come in future installments of this Paris thing, though sadly, they are mostly all mine.

I had a long confab with my traveling buddy James last night and have come up with ways to add things to my account, though not all will make it into the NJK version of things. These would be not so much details about concrete activities as the emotional and psychological ends of things.

Thanks for all the compliments so far and the input to come.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger TripleJ said...

More Clooney (sans the gray), less Loggins. But then again, of course I would lean to Clooney over Loggins.

At 12:44 AM, Blogger Satisfied '75 said...

nice. i look fwd to reading each installment.

tripleJ. when you are healthy again, we'll go out for a good time. no mechanical bulls involved.

At 9:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

having seen triple j's new facial hair, i can honestly say it looks a lot like fu man chu maybe crossed with steve buscemi. he's also gotten to stroking it a bit which, since it's so narrow and long, is a tad odd (sorry, trip, gotta tell it like i see it).

anyway, look forward to reading this bankston.

At 10:47 AM, Blogger incognato said...

great read. I can totally relate on the trips vs. dogs.

Glad to hear you're feeling better TripleJ. and I have to admit, I'm a little surprised by the beard. :)

At 2:25 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Okay, cough up the details on the mechanical bulls.

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Scrubby Nub and The Bothered Brigade said...

Bankston, again, nice post.

TripleJ, d'you Sasefina's last blog post about the beard revival? Good stuff. And you know I dig the beard.

- Richard Buckner

At 5:10 PM, Blogger TripleJ said...

Damn you Buckner -- you blew my cover. To be fair, I started growing the beard before reading Sasefina's post. I, then, kept growing the beard and even choose the Clooney reference -- at least subsciously -- after reading Sasefina's post.

For so many years, it was only other men who liked beards.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

So Triple J strokes his beard all the time? I knew a Greek guy in college who, whenever he'd talk to you would always stick his hand up the front of his shirt to stroke his chest hair. He seemed to get off to this.

I blabbered on about beards and moustaches on Sas's site.

At 10:10 PM, Blogger sasefina said...

Thanks for reading my blog. I'm flattered.

TripleJ, sorry to hear about the bad fortune. (And the not drinking.) Hope you're better than ever soon.

And Bankston, I too am enjoying these installments. And now I really want to go back to Paris.

At 8:01 PM, Blogger TripleJ said...

Thanks Sasefina. I look forward to the day when I will be tilting one with you, Scrubby Nub, The Drunkard and Marty.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Matt said...

I enjoy a good yarn.
Kudos sir.


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