Went to Paris every year. Lonesome traveler of eighteen, in the Kerouac mold, til twenty-three or four. Timed it for the fall to paint the autumn colors along the Seine and the boulevards. Some years, stayed one to two months.
Met the beats during my first stay, 1959, loafing without shirts along the tip of Vert Galant, soaking the waning sun. Or guzzling a ten cent vin rouge – who’s buying? – at Place Danton, jabbering existential views, passing time til nightfall.
Nights were the action. In jazz dives on the Place de la Contrescarpe. In an Arab subterranean bistro featuring whole roasted chicken in smoke-filled caves. In cliques and trios we would roam from one venue to another, bumming wine from a friend here, food from a friend’s friend at another place.
Intellectual drifters, expatriates from Germany, Sweden and Algeria, some Brits, a wounded Foreign Legionnaire, “King” Hakon out of a French jail. Some mingling young Americans in tennis shoes, who smoked strange dope and went to the American Express for cash. Ten years earlier, Jack Kerouac had observed to John Clellon Holmes “you know, this is really a beat generation…” Artists, globetrotters, French musicians, aspiring writers like myself, though more advanced, many serious painters.
The painters showed me how to make a living. I remember the short Austrian who had been his master’s “star pupil” at the Vienna Art Academy. He walked fast-paced with large canvases, hurrying to or from the Place de Tertre near Sacre Coeur for the hundred-Franc tourist trade. He spread oils with a knife, like I would later do. At the time I dabbled in watercolors, used water from the Seine in a cup. Bullfights and Paris street scenes.
The fast money came from chalking on the sidewalk, “faire la craie.” My colleagues chalked images of Jesus Christ or the Holy Mary on the pedestrian Pont des Arts or near tourist spots like l’opera.
I bought myself a box of chalks, vibrant colors. What a delight to scratch the chalkstick onto the ground, rub the colorgrain into the porous asphalt, mix in some orange or yellow and see it glow with depth. The piece would melt together smooth and firm without seams or breaks, radiate three-dimensionally.
I couldn’t have drawn a face of Christ if I had tried to. Nor was I so inclined. I drew what moved me. Such as an antiwar theme, a hollow-eyed prisoner-of-war behind a barbed wire cemetery, asking “Pourquoi?”, “Why?” And what I lacked in art, I made up in showmanship. Next to my throw-box I wrote “Merci”, “Danke”, “Djimkuje” in twenty-two different languages. “Student on world tour” – student of what? Rather than seriously aloof, absorbed in the supposed craft, I would engage onlookers in discussions about war, life and death, politics, sometimes rabble-rousing strife.
My real coup was in selecting spots where French working people hustled from the Metro at Porte d’Ivry to their busses. The silvery Francs and fifty centimes coins flew and clinked. Seventy Francs in three hours put me into wine, baguettes and cheese for days. Paid my cheap hotel room in the Rue de l’Echaudee in Saint Germain de Pres. Tonight it would be my turn to buy wine….
Around mid-morning the familiar group would drift into Café Popov in the alley off Boule Miche. Strong coffee – with a shot of Calvados, “Café Calva”, if you could afford it. Get the brain geared up, the stories going. Maybe create some wild action, like diving from the bridge into the Seine, while I hit the gawking tourists up for donations in my hat. They sure snapped pictures of the uncouth creatures with long hair and beards, sandals and worn jeans. In exchange, we yelled obscenities at passing tourist boats.
On drizzling days, we holed up in the Henry Miller bookstore, looking across the Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite. Reading Zarathustra among the musty stacks, or Kaputt on the narrow wooden stairs to the second floor.
The carefree time knew no tomorrow. Camus affirmed the moment, “could live in a tree trunk…happily.” Feeling alive was enough. See red-brown leaves, smell roasting chestnuts, warm brandy coursing down your throat. Above all, the unboundedness, freedom to roam or stay, party all night or leave for Spain this afternoon. Splash sheer existence into your bearded laugh, grunting “Yess!”
And roam we did. On Espana’s Costa Brava, Hakon passed with tales from Ibitza, where rich widows nurture you with open arms and legs. Like rolling stones, we met up in Saint Tropez, Bertrand played the guitar at restaurants and bought us drinks. Two of us hitchhiked the Cote d’Azure, met a friend across the road. He just returned from the island of Bandol, where Erika from Hamburg worked in Ricarr’s bar. We had to go. She put us up for two days in her dorm bunkbeds. Back in Paris I had chaperoned Erika like a brother, shielded her from Arab hands, without a scheme. It wasn’t until Hamburg in the following year, when she cut her hair, that I had the hots for her and felt the loss.
Like dandelion puffs, these restless souls were blowing in the wind across the world’s continents. Atheists pledge non-allegiance, no flags, no dogma, rules. I called myself “World citizen number two” after that roaming American, Davis, who had border passport problems everywhere. Police and village constables hated and harassed us on sight.
From wars’ rubble, youthful Sturm and Drang demanded peace and freedom for every speck of life. Civil rights, women’s movement, children, animals, the individual. Spontaneous prose and flaunting sex. Sons and daughters were beyond command in times a-changin’, propelled to the sixties maelstrom, thousands massing in the streets of San Francisco with flowers in their hair. French Revolution ripples still.
First published April, 2014 in the Upper Left Edge